Book Review: After Her by Joyce Maynard

9780062257390A little over thirty years ago, on a June day just before sunset … a man came toward me with a length of piano wire stretched between his hands, and the intention of ending my days. I was 14 years old and many had already died at his hands … I have my sister to thank that I am here to tell what happened that day. Two ties, it was my sister who saved me, though I was not able to do the same for my sister.

 Rachel Torricelli and her younger sister Patty are growing up in a small, poor, suburban area in Marin County, southern California, eight miles north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Their father is the chief homicide detective, a charming, romantic, habitual philanderer whose escapades have shattered his marriage. Patty is a gifted athlete but hardly speaks except to Rachel to whom she is devoted. Rachel believes she has the gift of seeing the future and has a scarily mature understanding of her parents relationship.

“The problem between our parents, maybe, was that of all the women, our mother may have been the only one who appeared immune to our father’s romantic tactics, and for a man accustomed to charming the female population of the entire San Francisco Bay area this must have taken the wind right out of his sales.”

To all effect abandoned by their mother, a depressive who has retreated into her own private world after the breakdown of the marriage,  the sisters are content to be left to their own devices and spend much of their time playing imaginative games in the sprawling foothills of the mountains close to their home. Then the first body is found thrusting their father  into the limelight.  For Rachel, his elevation to celebrity status transforms her life from the periphery of the school social scene to a member of the inner circle.

But as the body count rises and police seem no nearer to finding the killer community support wanes. For the sisters, witnessing  the highly public erosion of their father’s position and his ensuing physical deterioration is agonising and they devise a plan to help him with deadly repercussions.

After Her is loosely based on a real-life series of murders of young women in Marin County in the late 1970s by the Trailside Killer (re-named the Sunset Strangler by Maynard.)  Whilst overall an entertaining page-turner, as a straight thriller it is a bit light on for suspense, and the family revelation thirty years after the main events is only slightly less expected than the pretty silly plot twist when Rachel turns detective.

Maynard is at her strongest when focusing on the ebbs and flows of the relationship between the two sisters. Her tone as the voice of Rachel, with all its teenage angst, expectation and invincibility, is terrific. And she is skilled at depicting the nuances, pressures and petty cruelties of small town living. In police chief Anthony Torricelli, Maynard has created an intriguing, flawed but charming and genuinely caring character. Her portrayal of the relationship between him and Rachel is one of the book’s highlights.

Joyce Maynard is a former reporter with the New York Times and is author of best sellers Labor Day (which has been made into a film starring Kate Winslet) and The Good Daughters. She also wrote the internationally-successful memoir At Home in the World about her relationship with the reclusive author J D Salinger.

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