The unsettling is the bread and butter of a domestic drama, but in recent years, it’s become incredibly stylish to relentlessly lean into the unnerving from cover to cover (think Gone Girl or My Lovely Wife).
And as much as I personally enjoy this type of doomed thrill ride of a book, I have to admit that it’s refreshing to read a novel in the same genre that sets a decidedly different course… Laura Dave’s The Last Thing He Told Me.
That’s not to say I think she’s penned a masterpiece here, as there are some things I find a little strange about the narrative, and others that are downright disappointing.
Read on and all will be revealed… except the end; I won’t ruin that for you (although I will comment on it).
The story goes from naught to sixty as soon as you flip the cover — Hannah wakes up and Owen, her husband, is gone! And not the “I’ve popped out for some milk and will be back in five” kind of gone — We’re talking gone gone.
The only things of significance he leaves behind are a duffle bag full of money, and a note that reads “Protect Her”, referring to his 16-year-old daughter Bailey, who happens to be Hannah’s stepdaughter.
We discover that the company Owen works for, The Shop, is being indicted for fraud, that the CEO has been arrested already, and that, as a big wig in the hierarchy of the business, Owen will likely go down too, thus explaining his disappearing act… or so it seems.
Hannah, sure her husband isn’t guilty, makes it her mission to find out just what the heck is going on, bringing her lawyer ex-fiance into the equation to serve as her attorney and help figure things out, all while FBI agents and the mysterious Grady hound Hannah for her husband’s whereabouts.
Gradually, we unravel Owen’s troubled history involving a witness protection-style escape from a potentially deadly situation, and in true domestic thriller style, just as the mystery starts to come together, an emergency puts the investigation on hold.
The action culminates in Hannah having to make some dicey decisions and deals with potentially fatal consequences, then the story is driven home with a flash forward in which we’re given a glimpse of the outcome of the protagonist’s choices.
At this point, The Last Thing He Told Me is a triumphant commercial success.
It experienced a meteoric rise, reaching the top spot on the New York Times Top Sellers list shortly after publication, and spent an incredible 5 non-consecutive weeks there!
It remained on this prestigious list for 48 weeks and held a spot on the IndieBound bestseller list for four months.
Shifting more units in the country than any other book for four weeks, it was also well received in Canada.
Subsequently, The Last Thing He Told Me was named the Best Mystery and Thriller of 2021 via the Goodreads Choice Awards, and was championed by Reese Witherspoon and her book club, which has helped to prolong the book’s success (If you liked this book, also check out Falling Book Review).
Reese Witherspoon’s production company has now acquired the television rights to the novel, and a miniseries adaptation is in the works, set to air on Apple TV with Jenifer Garner playing the role of Hannah.
What This Book Does Effectively
The setup for this book is done, shall we say… by the book. Husband gone — Panic! Lots of money — Shock! Alone with stepchild — Familial drama!
At this point, it has all the hallmarks of a successful domestic thriller, and I was positively enthralled and eager to go on this journey of discovery with Hannah.
The primary arc of the main characters is simply to bond with one another in the face of numerous challenges, which I found quite refreshing.
So if you’re sick of the current trend of adamantine bleakness in domestic thrillers, you may appreciate Dave’s efforts here.
In a way, there’s a subtle nod to the fairy tale in the fateful pairing of stepmother and stepdaughter, yet it flips the old standard on its head, making the daughter out to be, not evil, but the negative presence, while the mother has to keep them together and safe.
The noble and loving father figure removed from the equation by external corruption and delinquency is another intriguing symmetry with the classic tales we all grew up with, yet the story feels entirely contemporary in its execution, which Dave should be praised for!
I also appreciated some of the well-composed thoughts scattered throughout the novel, especially those on the nature of grief and the blurring of lines that separate good from evil.
And although I’m not usually a fan of flashback-heavy fiction, they were handled remarkably well, drip-feeding vital information at just the right pace.
Even though you were jumping back in time, it didn’t seem to slow down the plot which takes a deft hand to accomplish.
But you don’t need to observe the craft that deeply to understand that Dave is a fantastic writer.
One of the best things about this book is her elegant voice, as it makes it incredibly digestible, even if you’re not much of a reader. However, as you’ll see shortly, I think the plot really lets the side down.
Where It Misses The Mark
The first thing that really got in the way of my loving this book is the dialogue. It strikes with neither elevated dramatics nor stark realism.
In fact, “strikes” is probably the wrong word to use, as it really doesn’t; it just is.
While I appreciated the not-so-bleak drive of the book, focusing more on fighting through struggle for the betterment of family ties than it does on cataclysm after cataclysm a la Gone Girl, I feel it takes things a little too far in this sappy direction.
The narrative doesn’t hit as hard as it should, and the incendiary, gripping sense of mystery established in the first couple of chapters quickly fizzles out into almost irrelevant and completely boring revelations.
This palpable dip in tension is disheartening and makes the effortless task of turning the page a real chore.
I also had some issues with the framing of this story. Although the protagonist, Hannah almost becomes a detached observer in true Nick Carraway fashion but refuses to fully secede from the limelight, which makes the story feel a little stilted and low energy.
Perhaps the story would have been much more interesting through Bailey’s eyes, or at least energized by a chapter or two from Owen’s point of view.
My overarching problem with the story is that I just don’t feel sympathetic enough toward Hannah to get behind her and feel what she’s feeling.
Besides her husband going on the lam, nothing really happens to her, and she doesn’t really change. Almost all the events pertain to Owen and Bailey, so you’re left feeling like she’s the wrong narrator for the story.
What’s more, the sense of realism that is so rife in the DNA of quality domestic thrillers is almost completely absent from the story…
- Money isn’t an issue, as Owen leaves a veritable treasure trove behind, and besides, Hannah is flush anyway.
- The danger in the novel doesn’t feel grounded enough to really grip you, and the villains are a distant, amorphous entity.
- There is little to no media presence in the book despite the high-profile embezzlement case Owen’s embroiled in.
… And besides going on a bit of a fact-finding mission, Hannah’s main task is to look after and bond with Bailey, her stepdaughter, which she should have been trying to do well before her husband vanished.
Thankfully, Dave’s writing is good enough to help this flawed story along. Her style goes down like a nice smooth wine, but thanks to the dull, lifeless plot, after you’ve glugged down a few pages, you don’t feel intoxicated, and you realize you’ve been drinking juice all along.
I found the ending to be quite trite and cloying too, and although the mother-daughter dynamic is one of the aspects of the story that makes it feel fresh, it eventually becomes a corny cringe-fest, a parody of itself.
The Last Thing He Told Me is a comfortable read and will satisfy anyone after a relatively adept mystery story, but as far as I’m concerned it’s quite unremarkable, and I’m still puzzling over the acclaim.
That’s not to say that the writing doesn’t show potential, as the book exhibits some fantastic elements, but it’s as if the different aspects of Dave’s technical prowess are yet dislocated by structural fault lines.
Ultimately, these setbacks limit the story’s impact to such a degree that I quickly forgot details of the plot mere days after reading it, as if it were a giant meteorite ablaze in the sky that burned up as it passed through the atmosphere, landing as a tiny pip in my brain.
However, this is often the way of overtly commercial books with a general target audience. At least it doesn’t try to be something else and then fall flat.
It’s unapologetically mainstream, and millions of people will (and do) love it, but for me, it was… meh.