Yep, I called it. I read and reviewed Heather Young’s The Lost Girls when it come out last year, and prophesied that it would receive an Edgar nom for Best First Novel. And indeed it did.
When I reread a book for the Edgars, it’s a different kind of reading. It’s not just getting swept along by the story and connecting with the characters, I read for craft… how does the author put the story together, show the characters, manage the pace, reveal the secrets while maintaining the suspense? And the ending – is it satisfying, or does it just stop? (Or is it a set-up for the next book? Augh.) When it comes to these factors, Heather Young has done a fantastic job.
The Lost Girls is two stories, one in the past and one in the present, intertwined, and connected through a single family.
It all begins in 1935 at the summer house of a seemingly happy and well-to-do family. The father owns a pharmacy and is very religious. There are three girls. Lilith, the wild one, is 13. 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, and the father kills himself just a few months later. Lilith, Lucy, and Eleanor, their mother, live together, year-round, in the house by the lake. There are lifelong secrets kept, not to be revealed until Lucy, nearing the end of her life, decides to recount the story of that summer and the years since then in a notebook she leaves for her grand-niece, Justine, whom she hasn’t seen in over 20 years.
Meanwhile, in the present. Justine is gobsmacked to hear from a lawyer that her great aunt Lucy has died and she is her heir. There is a house and money, but more than that – it’s the chance for a new beginning. Justine had a bad marriage and is making a worse mistake with her controlling, live-in boyfriend, Patrick. 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. No credit cards, no cell phone – she simply does not want to be found.
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 slowly she is succeeding. She discovers the handwritten books that Lucy penned about her little sister Emily. Among them is Lucy’s story for Justine, although she doesn’t find it – Melanie does. They settle in and just when things seem to be going well, Patrick arrives, and with him, Justine’s crushing fear that she will give in and give up.
Rereading makes it clear that Heather Young is a skillful first-time author. Each story carries its own weight. Justine’s love for her daughters, her insight into her own weakness, her awakening courage and the strength to stand up to the manipulative Patrick – even when he goes so far as to set their house on fire so he can become, once again, Justine’s “savior,” is painfully true. Her small triumph is deeply personal and fulfilling.
And Lucy tells a story of her own awakening to the hidden depths and twisted relationships in her own family. Over that one summer, she comes to realize what all in her family know but don’t say – that her father is sexually obsessed with Lilith’s purity, and that once she is sullied, he will move on to Lucy. And then to Emily. And it is his obsession, and how it affects all three girls and their mother that summer, that results in Emily’s death, his death, and a drastically diminished life for the women. As she nears the end of her life, Lucy regrets her own part in the story and the choices she made. Young makes Lucy’s story – told in her own voice – compelling and real, and by recounting it chronologically, keeps us in suspense.
it’s clear that The Lost Girls deserves a spot at the top of the Literary Lunchbox Edgar rankings. Well-plotted, psychologically complex, optimistic and humane, it is a level above the other nominees, although they are all deserving of the nomination!
Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel
- The Lost Girls by Heather Young
- IQ by Joe Ide
- The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie
- Dodgers by Bill Beverly
- Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry
- Dancing with the Tiger by Lili Wright