Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Long-Buried Secrets Come Home to Roost in Compelling, But Disturbing Fragile

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

No one's business is their own in The Hollows, a sleepy little town outside of New York City. Put one toe out of line and the whole place will be buzzing by lunchtime. The unrelenting scrutiny is what drove Maggie Cooper out of town in the first place - and what brought her back. As oppressively intimate as life felt when she was a child, that's exactly what she wants for her teenage son: a nice, safe upbringing. She's succeeded. Despite his eternally black clothes and always screaming iPod, Rick's a good kid. Which is why Maggie refuses to believe he has anything to do with his girlfriend's disappearance.

Charlene Murray is no one's idea of a good girl. With her natural beauty and goth style, she's got an edgy vulnerability that makes the boys wild. Rick, especially, has fallen hard. Everyone knows Charlene's trouble. Her friends admits she's a user, someone who will step on anyone to get what she wants. Still, she's not the type to disappear without a trace. A drama queen like her craves attention, yet she's gone from Facebook, isn't answering texts, and still hasn't come home. Even glass-half-full Maggie has to admit that it looks like foul play. But, if Charlene's dead, what does that mean for Rick? Could her gentle boy have harmed the one he claims to love? Or did another of The Hollow's boys mess with the resident bad girl?

The disappearance carries an eerie resemblance to an older case - during Maggie's high school years, another teenage girl vanished. Although her killer confessed, his admission never really rang true. Now, the secrets of the past seem to be coming home to roost. Haunted by his own guilt, police chief Jones Cooper does his best to ignore painful memories and concentrate on the job at hand: finding Charlene. But, the more he digs into the new case, the more he comes face-to-face with the old. Is it a case of history repeating itself? Or some terrifying new threat? Where has Charlene Murray gone? Will she ever be found? Can Jones find justice for one girl, let alone two? Or will the misdeeds of the past taint everyone's future?

What is it about the families/old secrets/small town combination that makes a story so compelling? It's my favorite mixture, one that's been done well by authors like Jodi Picoult and Lesley Kagen. I've never read a Lisa Unger novel before, but Fragile definitely sounded like this kind of book, my kind of book. And it was. Sorta. The plot moves along swiftly, keeping the story interesting, definitely holding my attention. However, I never felt deeply connected to the characters. The almost overwhelming dysfunction of nearly every family in the book made it seem both cold and unrealistically melodramatic. This isn't a warm fuzzy type of novel, I realize that, I just needed something to alleviate the story's bleakness, something to make me believe in Unger's cast of characters. I didn't get that from Fragile. Likewise, I found the mystery a bit cliched, quite predictable. Perhaps it's because I'm used to subtler, more nuanced stories (a la Picoult and Kagen) that Unger's straightforward style didn't work very well for me. I wanted more complexity, more originality out of this story.

That being said, Fragile is a riveting pageturner, equal parts compelling and disturbing. It didn't wow me like many of Picoult's novels do, but it definitely kept me reading. While I can't say I loved the book, I can say I couldn't put it down. However awful the outcome, I had to know what happened. Although I knew I didn't really want to know. Despite my other complaints, this ability of Unger's to hold my attention impressed me. It's what makes me want to read her again. Even if Fragile didn't quite work for me. I may never love Unger like I do Picoult, but I'm more than willing to give her another chance. If this book's any indication, she absolutely deserves it.

(Readalikes: Unger's writing style reminds me of Jodi Picoult, although I like the latter better.)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, violence, and sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Fragile from the kind people at BookSparks PR. Thank you!

3 comments:

  1. I'm excited to be reading this one after I get back from my vacation. I think that this particular type of story is a departure for Lisa Unger. Her books have been more romantic suspense leaning more heavily into the mystery part. If this is the direction she is trying now, perhaps the next one will seem more settled. Thanks for sharing!

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