Recently released, The Lost Girls by Heather Young is a novel that switches between past and present and one that provides characters marked by disturbed minds rivaling those in Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train but with the added satisfaction of actually being believable. This is the story of a young six-year-old girl who vanished without a trace and the generations that followed at a lake house in Minnesota. This just might be the “book club book” of the year. William Morrow | July, 2016 | Hardcover | 341 pp
Lucy was the middle child of three girls. Her family was well-to-do and they had built a cottage on the shores of a lake just far enough out of town to make for the perfect summer retreat, and they would spend every summer there. Many years later on on her death bed, she writes about one particular summer and the events that changed their lives. She writes the journal for Justine, her sister’s granddaughter and the woman she plans to leave everything to when she dies. Lucy wants her to know what happened.
That summer, Lucy writes, began differently from the past summers. Her older sister Lilith didn’t seem interested enough to play and explore like they used to. Lilith was getting older and paying attention to the boys, much to the chagrin of her strict and penitent father. Lucy felt left out but instead of diverting her attention to her younger sister Emily, she ignored the child (who also felt very left out) and made friends with Matthew, a half-Indian boy who ran the camp store with his family. Both Lucy and Lilith weren’t very kind to their youngest sibling; they were jealous that she got all of their mother’s attention. And when the last day of that splendid and heinous summer came and went, Emily was gone. She was never seen again.
The story passed through the generations. Even Justine, who only met Lucy and Lilith once before, knew about the tragic loss. Her mother, Lilith’s illegitimate daughter, left the lake house when she was a young teenager, only returning once with Justine years later. Now Justine is a grown woman with two daughters of her own, living with a man she doesn’t love. When she receives the call that Lucy, her great-aunt, had died and left her the house and assets, Justine picks up and leaves with her children without so much as a note of explanation to her live-in boyfriend. She’s determined to make a fresh start at the lake house, thousands of miles away from San Diego.
It’s a difficult start. The house is dilapidated and it’s during the middle of a cold Minnesota winter. Her daughters aren’t used to the cold weather and they’re confused and upset about up and leaving. Her eldest daughter is acting out and Justine is nonplussed.
While Justine struggles to make it work, she reminisces about growing up with her mother, a woman who was constantly running away, taking her daughter with her. Justine swore she would never be like that, she would give her kids a stable home – but look at what she just did. She up and left, just like her mother. With her kids having trouble fitting in at school, the cold house, money problems, and small-town rumors about her family – the troubles keep piling up.
Meanwhile, every other chapter switches from miserable winter to gorgeous summer at the lake house as Lucy writes about the eventful summer that caused her family to stay and die there, always waiting for Emily to come home. Or so it would seem.
Each chapter reveals something new about all of the girls from each generation. It’s a mystery that will be solved only upon completion, when Lucy pens her final entry and when Justine finally realizes what, exactly, has followed her to the lake house. Whether or not the journal has given her the fortitude to see/confront those demons or not, she needs to save her daughters from becoming another statistic.
At first, Lucy doesn’t find the journal. There’s a picture of little Emily on the wall, something of a shrine, and her daughters seem to be infatuated with the family mystery – as any curious little ones would be. When they first move in, Justine finds only a half-read book on the nightstand, right next to where her great-aunt died peacefully in her sleep.
“How horrible to die without finishing a book, she thought. Never to know the end of a story.”
That’s certainly the truth. A bit of foretelling.
I would love to discuss the characters but I’m afraid that too much information could prove to be spoiling. Each character is richly described through psychological behavior – actions and reactions. They’re being profiled for you by author Young, a sagacious intent, and while you might not understand their motives, it becomes clear when the truth is revealed. These behavioral notations on each character enforce their personas in such a way that you feel as if you actually know them. It’s brilliant.
“Now one of them put his hand on Maurie’s hip below the belt loops of her tight jeans. She shook it off playfully, then took the beers and came back to us. The Indian said something to his friend, and they looked over their shoulders at her. When she sat she wound her arm through Abe’s and ignored them in a way that wasn’t ignoring, if you know what I mean.”
There is something very dark and very real surrounding the events that led to Emily’s disappearance. Cowardice, immaturity, and fear were factors – but a wolf in sheep’s clothing is the true culprit. And a variation of that sinister monster has crossed over into Justine’s life, not that she knows about it.
I highly suggest The Lost Girls for book club nominations across the globe. There will be no shortage of discussion.
The Lost Girls
by Heather Young