Top positive review
Anybody who likes character-driven thrillers should try it
May 1, 2017
Lisa Jewell is a gem. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
I’m fussy about mysteries. Few of them, in my opinion, hit the proper balance of plot, character and setting. So I was thrilled to discover a writer who, though she’s been around for some time (this is her 13th book), has so far been known mostly in the UK.
This is the second of Jewell’s novels that I’ve read; the first, THE GIRLS IN THE GARDEN, was long on characterization and atmosphere but a bit short on plot, with an ambiguous ending that didn’t quite satisfy me. I FOUND YOU has a much more coherent and suspenseful structure.
Jewell juggles three narrative strands. One features a fortyish single mother/artist named Alice Lake, who has moved with her three kids and three dogs from London to Ridinghouse Bay, a town on the North Sea. Alice is impulsive, casual-verging-on-sloppy, and very lonely; she is also kind, sexy, humorous, intuitive and talented (her cleverly conceived business is creating collages out of maps). A rescuer of people and dogs as well as the long-distance caretaker of her Alzheimer’s-stricken parents --- she keeps an eye on them via a webcam feed on her iPad --- she has a definite altruistic streak.
One day she notices a man sitting on the beach in the rain. She doesn’t know him, she has no reason to trust him, but she brings him a coat and then --- knowing this is foolish --- lets him stay in her house. The man, whom she calls Frank, has amnesia; he has no idea who he is. As he and Alice walk around the town, however, fragments of his past begin to come back --- and a mutual attraction blossoms. Even her least friendly dog is drawn to him (“You must be a good guy…. Dogs always know”); even her adolescent son and little daughter like him (her teenage daughter isn’t so sure). Their romance is tender, unsentimental, grown-up and thoroughly believable.
The second thread involves a just-married woman named Lily Monrose, whose husband has disappeared. Lily is from the Ukraine, which is where she met Carl. Seemingly, they are an ideal, if isolated couple --- their relationship, unlike Alice and Frank’s, has a sort of airless perfection --- and then, without warning, he vanishes. When the police investigate, they find that Carl’s passport is a sophisticated fake. Betrayed, deserted and a stranger in a strange land, Lily sets out to find him.
Is Frank really Carl? That’s what the reader might think, but a certain ambiguity emerges when Jewell introduces a third strand, a flashback to 1993, 23 years ago. Again we are in Ridinghouse Bay, but it is summer, and a family of four --- including a teenage sister and brother, Kirsty and Graham, known as Gray --- is on vacation. On the beach they meet a handsome but frighteningly intense young man, Mark, who is instantly besotted with Kirsty. When she rebuffs him, he becomes violent, and an idyllic vacation turns tragic. So perhaps Frank could be Gray? And what happened to Kirsty? The cruel past starts to play itself out in the present as Lily’s search for her husband leads her to Ridinghouse Bay, where she encounters Alice and Frank.
While I found Alice and Lily’s stories riveting, the 1993 sequences are a bit melodramatic. Mark is obviously disturbed, and disturbing. Gray is worried sick about his sister, but then makes decisions that put her in danger. The action, in short, doesn’t feel in sync with the characters. Moreover, the convergence of the three stories in the last third of the book seems contrived. A friend of Carl’s is unbelievably helpful to Lily for no good reason; an obliging investigative reporter shows up as needed; and Mark’s aunt, who has kept his secrets all these years, conveniently decides not to anymore.
Yet the people who inhabit the present-day narratives in I FOUND YOU are strikingly, poignantly real. The twin figures of Alice and Lily --- very different, but equally brave in their fashion --- dominate the book, though it’s Frank and Carl who are ostensibly the main actors. The women push to bring the men’s true character to light, even at the risk of their hearts and their futures.
When Frank, fearing he has done violence to somebody in his unremembered past, urges Alice to take him to the police and leave him there, she has a glimpse of the end of their brief, glowing affair, “and she doesn’t like the look of it at all. It looks cruel and mean. It looks like her, sitting alone in her room, cutting up maps to make art for people to give to people they love. It looks like her watching TV on a crumb-strewn sofa, surrounded by stinky dogs and moody teenagers.... It looks like this beautiful man with his autumn hair and his gentle eyes and his warm breath and his strong hands, walking out of her life….”
The identity conundrum apart, this novel is also a marvelous love story. Actually, I think every really good mystery deals in something other than crime and punishment, something larger and perhaps redemptive. I FOUND YOU is not just a whodunit; it’s about families, strangers, loss, loneliness and memory. Anybody who likes character-driven thrillers should try it.
Meanwhile, I’ll be on that website beginning with a lowercase a, seeking out more of Jewell’s work. Having a new suspense writer on my must-read list is great --- like money in the bank, like cake in the pantry, like a new dress waiting to be worn.
Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman