Woodstock author and Shamus Award-winner Alison Gaylin's new page-turner What Remains of Me is driven by true suspense, an unforgettable character, and a virtuosic double timeline. Set in 1980 and 30 years after, chapters flip-flop between decades, both time frames allowing the story to build. We see both a quiet girl and her future self, a fierce survivor of a woman, full of secrets, moving through a city of extreme lights and darks.
Gaylin's hands are skilled, deft, and a little scary; it's hard to avoid saying "masterful precision" to describe her craft. This is, in fact, a thriller written with very masterful precision. And like the best movies (hint), it's an experience you sink into with relish. It gets under your skin. It feels like a dream state you want to stay in.
Hollywood, 1980. In a chilling example of "still waters run deep," Kelly Michelle Lund is that girl you barely notice, unlike her far more attractive young starlet of a sister, who, tragically, has taken her own life. But then, on a night that's broilingly hot even for SoCal, 17-year-old Kelly shoots and kills a man—an Oscar-nominated director—seemingly in cold blood. She's a mere teenager; the crime appears shocking and inexplicable; and it thrusts Kelly into a limelight that won't let her go.
A former tabloid reporter, Gaylin's clearly an aficionado of tawdry gossip venues—her own versions are pitch-perfect in their lurid, damning enthusiasm. Actually, she's a great channeler of all forms of media, so pertinent to the story and so authentic in tone that you'd swear they actually exist.
Girl goes to jail, gets released decades later, and marries. Strangely enough, her father-in-law is of a similar ilk to the first murderee, another Mister Hollywood. Which means that when he is murdered, the spotlight turns to Kelly again. Is she innocent, a victim of the media's ability to rob a person of any identity but "convicted murderer"? Or—?
To reveal more would verge on spoilers. And the path this story takes is convoluted, rank with unsettling discoveries. At one point, the plot turns on the presence of mere seconds of security-cam video, a filmy image of a person in a hoodie—a smoking gun, or is it? And then there is no turning back, either for the characters or the reader. Every great thriller has its hook, or in this case, its hoodie.
What Remains of Me is a book writ scrumptious with tasty cultural references: 1980s adolescents toke to Joy Division and the Knack; Ambien is a vexing and constant 21st-century crutch; a mysterious tattooed neighbor does chainsaw art; TMZ shrills horribly; Kelly's day job is writing fake profiles on a hookup site for philanderers. Still, the book is about far more: tragedy buried deep, rumbling quietly, as if everyone lives on a fault line (which they do).
It's also about the toll power takes on tender hearts. With her crystalline imagination and crisp ability to propel a story forward, Gaylin has created a shooting star of a tale. Perhaps in the end she's loyal to those rules of fiction indeed. In a nod to both Flannery O'Connor and Anton Chekhov, everything that rises does indeed converge, and yep: If there's a gun, it's going to go off.