Gone Girl, Girl on a Train, The Girls, Luckiest Girl Alive, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo… it seems like the literary world is littered with girls. At least with the latest entry, Heather Young‘s The Lost Girls, the girls in question are actual children. Or they were at the time the mystery began.
It begins in 1935. There are three girls. Lilith, the wild one, is 16. Lucy, the quiet middle sister, is two years younger. And the baby of the family, the cosseted Emily who rarely leaves her mother’s side, is six. And then one day, Emily vanishes. No trace of her is ever found. Some months later, Lilith has a baby and names her Maurie. The father? Lilith never says. Two unconnected events or not? Hmmmm…
Fast forward 60 years. Lucy dies and leaves the family home, where she had Lilith had lived together all these years, to her grand-niece Justine. It’s the chance of a new beginning for Justine, who made a bad marriage and is now about to repeat her mistake with a controlling, live-in boyfriend, Patrick. The house in Minnesota, hundreds of miles away from California where she lives with Patrick and her two daughters, is a new start for her. So she packs their bags, loads the girls in the car, and leaves her apartment key and a note that tells Patrick that there is spaghetti in the refrigerator, and takes her last bit of cash and drives cross-country.
A lot happens on the four-day trip and once gets there, she finds that the house is not in good shape, it’s scary cold, and Melanie, her older daughter, is sullen and resentful. And always there is the specter of Patrick. Justine works hard to make a life for herself and her girls, and the community begins to take her in and care for her. Then she discovers handwritten books of fanciful tales that Lucy wrote for her little sister Emily, and among them is another story – a story Lucy left for Justine, the story of her life with her sisters. And ultimately, it’s the story of Emily’s death and how it affected the whole family. The book alternates between Justine’s life and Lucy’s account.
Both stories are engaging and suspenseful. The characters well-drawn and affecting, particularly Lucy and Justine, but the minor characters as well. Patrick does show up and is just as self-centered and grasping as you would expect, but not the violent bad-boyfriend cliche he would have been in the hands of a lesser author. And the story of what happened to Emily and why, the lifelong impact it had on her sisters, as well as the underlying evil, hidden beneath a pious mien, packs an emotional jolt.
I predict big things for Heather Young, as this is her debut novel. She reminds me a bit of Lori Roy, who won the Edgar a few years ago for her debut, Bent Road. Nomination next year for Young? I wouldn’t bet against it!