In the pre-Katrina glow of New Orleans, Amanda Salassi is anxious about chaperoning her daughter’s sixth-grade field trip to the Big Easy during Halloween. And then her worst fears come true. Her daughter’s best friend, Sarah, disappears amid the magic and revelry—gone, without a trace. Unable to cope with her guilt, Amanda’s daughter sinks into depression. And Amanda’s husband turns destructive as he watches his family succumb to grief. Before long, Amanda’s whole world has collapsed. Amanda knows she has to save herself before it’s too late. As she continues to search for Sarah, she embarks on a personal journey, seeking hope and purpose in the wake of so much tragedy and loss.
In the months just prior to Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans, Louisiana, Amanda Salassi is working as a crisis intervention / grief counselor as well as periodically being called in by the local police department to do forensic interviewing. She agrees to serve as a parent-chaperone on her daughter Ellie's 6th grade class tour through the city. It is on this trip, which takes place the week of Halloween, that Ellie's best friend Sarah (and the daughter of Amanda's best friend, Beth) goes missing, leaving no clue of where she might have gone. A search is immediately put together, but as the days and weeks pass police are no closer to having an answer or lead to Sarah's whereabouts.
Months later, Amanda, along with the help of sheriff buddy Jay, is still doing her own searching and investigating. Meanwhile in her own home, her daughter Ellie has fallen into a deep depression. Amanda also feels an ever-growing distance developing between her and her husband. As the months turn into years of still no answer, Amanda (largely driven by her all-consuming grief and guilt) refuses to give up hope, even when the most unexpected tragedy befalls her own family.
I was definitely curious to try this story out, as I lived just outside of New Orleans years ago (pre-Katrina) and have since had a great soft spot for the city. This one ended up not being terrible but it did have something to it that struck me as a little flat and safe for much of the story. I will say I was utterly shocked at the dark turn Ellie's story took, but aside from that I feel like I've seen many of the elements used here a number of times before.
But even if it wasn't the most amazing drama-mystery out there, there were elements I definitely liked. I liked the bits of Sarah's journal entries, which seemed to serve as a nice break when the rest of the story started getting pretty heavy but were also done in a way that wasn't distracting or irritating. I liked that it kept the flow nicely.
I also thought the scenes following Hurricane Katrina's arrival -- the scenes of communities banding together -- I thought those were well done and had a realism to them without being too painful to read. I also found myself moved by the passages describing the post-suicide grief process.
Carl -- Amanda's husband -- man, he was a tough character to read! It was disturbing to experience his crazy mood fluxes, the way one minute he'd be deep in mad lust-love with Amanda, the next moment (usually when he didn't get his way about something) he'd fly into a crazy rage. The sort of "closure" conversation that happened between Carl and Amanda near the end of the book struck me as a tad ridiculous. I felt like Amanda gave Carl WAY too much credit and too easily dismissed his horrible behavior. In a way, it is realistic in that that's not uncommon behavior for an emotionally abusive relationship (I'm speaking from having been in one myself in the past) but it's still irritating to read that behavior on paper, and I did think Amanda was a little bit of a hyper-portrayal of reality. I also struggled with the way some of the characters were written -- their actual characterizations, I mean. One scene with Ellie especially stood out to me, when she tells her mother "Happiness is a myth." I don't know, that struck me as a bit deep and emo for someone only in 6th grade at the time.
While reading this one, I couldn't help thinking how much it reminded me of Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping story. As it turns out, author Julie Cantrell admits in her author afterword that that case was, in fact, a large inspiration for this novel! (Not the only one, but a big one).
POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This novel addresses the topics of suicide, spousal abuse, and sex trafficking.
FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.