What Remains of Me, Alison Gaylin’s novel of psychological suspense that has been nominated for a Mystery Writers of America Edgar award for Best Novel, is the latest in a number of books I’ve read where my first thought on finishing is “Why this title?” It’s not written in the first person, so who is me? The main character is Kelly Lund, and while she has a tough life and scary stuff happens to her, she is uniquely and wholly herself all the way through the entire book. No remains. Perhaps I am not deep enough. (I often think this.)
A better title for the book would have been, “Who Are You, Really?” The characters’ motivations drive the plot, which is thoroughly twisty, sometimes scary, and occasionally sad. And these motivations, which are revealed at various intervals throughout the book, often rely on ignorance of the real relationships between the characters, their well-kept secrets, and a certain degree of willful blindness.
But perhaps I’m confusing you. Here’s the scoop: In 1980, Kelly Lund was arrested as a teenager for murdering her friend Vince’s father, famous director John McFadden. She admitted it, she shot him, she did the time, although she never said why. Now it’s 2010, Kelly’s an adult in her late 40s, and married for the past 15 years to Shane Marshall, the younger brother of her former best friend, Bellamy, and the son of film director Sterling Marshall, McFadden’s best friend. They don’t have sex, though, and Shane doesn’t really know why and we’re not sure about Kelly. Maybe it’s because she’s fooling around with a hot neighbor who makes giant sculptures out of wood, who reminds her strongly of the boy she loved back in the day? Or maybe it’s even him?
But then Sterling Marshall dies. Just like John McFadden did – two in the head and one in the heart. Suspicion falls on Kelly, and it seems like she probably did it, because she came home from a middle-of-the-night drive and put bloody clothes into the washing machine.
The book shifts back and forth between 1980 and 2010. In 1980, Kelly has a controlling and hardworking mother, a dead twin sister, and a stuntman father she doesn’t see much. (The dad is heartbreaking, he’s such a good but ruined man.) She also has new, privileged Hollywood friends who introduce her to alcohol, drugs, sex, and general making a mess of her life.
In 2010, Kelly is under suspicion for Sterling’s death, Bellamy hates her and always has, despite having made it as an artist by exploiting Kelly, Shane still loves her but is confused, and her mother-in-law should be awful, but is actually kind of nice when she isn’t high.
By the end of the unfolding of the intertwined tales, the reader knows
— SPOILER ALERT STOP HERE DANGER —
that Kelly and Shane are half-siblings, that Kelly didn’t kill Sterling but she did kill McFadden, that Bellamy might adore her father, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t kill him to keep him from leaving any part of his estate to his other daughter, Kelly, that Kelly’s mom has been living in a commune for decades with Kelly’s cowardly friend Vince, that the guy she is in love with and imagined was Vince is actually the boy who sat behind her in homeroom and threw spitballs her way to torment her.
Does it all hang together? Absolutely. Does Gaylin keep those pages turning? No doubt. Is it all a glorious soap opera? Yes, and if it were a movie, half the people in the theater would be asking the friend next to them to explain it to them. My problem is that the ludicrous plot would come undone if almost anyone would ask a question or tell the truth.
What Remains of Me is like Pringle’s. Not really potato chips, but you keep munching away anyway, feeling slightly sick but unable to stop yourself. Gaylin is a best-selling author and her debut novel, Hide Your Eyes, got an Edgar nom in 2006. Her Stay With Me was nominated for Best Paperback Original in 2015. So I am just going to chalk this up to differing tastes, while putting the book firmly at the bottom of the ranking.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel