It was the place we found out about everything, that mountain. Animal bones and deer scat. Birds, flowers, condoms. The bodies of dead animals, the bodies of men. Rocks and lizards. Sex and death. – from After Her –
It is a hot, dry summer in Northern California. It is 1979. Rachel is thirteen – an age when girls are morphing into young women. She and her younger sister, Patty, live in the shadow of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County – a mountain they call their playground. But danger is lurking there – a serial killer is taking the lives of women, leaving their bodies sprawled naked except for their shoes, missing the shoelaces. Rachel and Patty’s father is the charismatic detective in charge of the case, a man who seems like a hero to his daughters despite leaving their mother for another woman. When months go by with no resolution in the case, Rachel is determined to help her father find the killer. But her efforts put herself and her sister in danger, and have unanticipated consequences for her father. Years later, at age 44, Rachel looks back on the summer of her thirteenth year and finds that her desire to catch a killer has not waned in the least.
After Her is Joyce Maynard’s latest novel and is based loosely on the real case of the Trailside Killer — a series of murders in and around the San Francisco Bay area which terrorized hikers in the 1970s. I was eager to read this book because not only did I live in Marin County at one time, but I also enjoyed hiking and running on Mt. Tamalpais. I had also read some nonfiction concerning the Trailside Killer (which at the time made me a little less likely to go hiking alone on the mountain).
Maynard has written more of a literary novel than a tantalizing mystery. Rachel is a bright, inquisitive child who is experiencing the pain and awkwardness of growing up. She and her sister are incredibly close – the best of friends. The girls idolize their father, but as they grow up, they begin to see his faults and imperfections too. The growth of the characters, especially that of Rachel, is what drives the story…although there is a mystery, it is not that conflict that keeps the reader turning the pages.
Joyce Maynard writes with an insight into her characters – their motivations, fears, desires, thoughts – which is brilliant. She puts the readers squarely inside the head of a thirteen year old girl on the cusp of womanhood, and makes the reader believe in that character. The novel explores the themes of coming of age, the bond between sisters, the hero-worship of fathers by their young daughters, sexuality, and divorce. These are weighty themes, but they work within the context of the story largely because of Maynard’s skill at creating character.
After Her is a captivating novel which is well-written and poignant. Despite a few plot twists which weren’t exactly believable, I found myself enjoying the book from a literary perspective. Readers who enjoy literary fiction which are part mystery-thriller, will find this novel a good read.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review.