Jane Shemilt’s The Daughter is the sixth and last finalist I’ll be ranking in the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award category of Best Paperback Original. This is my first year reviewing this category, but it’s one I plan to revisit. There’s plenty of fun to be had in reviewing Best First Novel, but that can be pretty variable in terms of quality. And of course in Best Novel I am most likely to find books I have already read. But the Best Paperback Original is consistently high in terms of writing quality while still having plenty of diversity. I’ve discovered some new “must read” authors this year… makes me wonder what I missed in previous years!
The Daughter centers on the disappearance of a 15-year-old girl, Naomi. Mother Jenny and father Ted are both physicians, but Jenny is a hard-working, overwhelmed GP, balancing her doctorly duties with her motherly ones, while Ted is a high-flying neurosurgeon. They also have twin sons, Ed and Theo. We learn early on that Naomi is not quickly found, alive nor dead, and that her disappearance has a profound impact on the family. Painful secrets are revealed, including the strong likelihood that this was not an abduction, but Naomi’s choice.
As the secrets unfurl, Jenny begins to question everything she thought she knew about her daughter, her husband, even her sons. At the same time, she questions her professional judgment when a child she thought she was saving from parental abuse is revealed to be well-loved, just poor and suffering from leukemia. That the father she accused reaches out in sympathy when he learns that Naomi is missing is a sharp reminder of her inadequacy.
But as quick a Jenny is to blame himself, her husband seems quick to absolve himself, even when it becomes apparent that one of Ted’s errors in judgment is the cause. A young girl’s surgery gone wrong, for which Ted failed to take the blame or even say “I’m sorry,” inspired one of the girl’s family to take revenge, not only seducing Naomi away but getting her brother hooked on drugs.
Over a year later, Jenny is still hanging on, coming to terms with what happened. Ted has come to regret his choices, their sons are doing well, and Jenny is a stronger person. The mystery of what truly happened to Naomi is resolved for Jenny and for the reader, and it is a pain-filled and yet hopeful resolution.
Shemilt reveals the story slowly, weaving back and forth in time from just before the disappearance to the days and months ahead. A second reading of the book shows just how well the author shows us what is happening through Jenny’s clouded perspective – no cheating – so that when the truth is revealed and we look with that realization, we see it was there all along. The final chapter is a stab to a mother’s heart.
Comparing The Daughter to the other finalists, it is certainly most similar to What She Knew. I went back and forth where to place it on the ranking, and could make a case for almost anywhere in the middle. Ultimately, I’m putting The Daughter at #2 because of the complexity of the plot and the strong characterization.
Congrats to The Long and Faraway Gone for maintaining the top spot. We’ll have to see come April 28 if the MWA judges agree with my call.
Literary Lunchbox Edgar Ranking: Best Paperback Original