Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What Has Become of You: A Novel by Jan Elizabeth Watson

What Has Become of You.  Jan Elizabeth Watson. Penguin Group (USA). May 2014. 352 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780525954378.

Vera Lunday has an avid interest in solving murder mysteries.  As a teenager, a classmate Heidi Duplessis was murdered and her alleged murderer died in prison before he could be convicted.  Quite some time previous to this devastating act, Vera started keeping a journal in which she wrote about her research into serial killers.  All of this interest and writing led to Vera being tormented by those who wondered if she had something to do with the murder of Heidi.  Vera isn’t playacting at being a sleuth; her interest and skills are sharp but not honed well enough to actually solve anything with solid evidence!

Things are looking upward when Vera is hired as a substitute teacher in an all girls’ prep school.  Her students are initially respectful although highly unmotivated.  Indeed, their focus is on the death of the Dean’s niece, a very young girl recently found murdered.  They want to talk about it and they don’t want to deal with it at all, ordinary responses to a shock that most imagine certainly would never happen in their small world. 

So Vera begins a series of discussions with her students about Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger.  The characters of her students are revealed slowly but surely in these discussions.  One student, Jensen Willard, oddly sets herself apart from the other girls and yet has a remarkable understanding and sensitivity about the character Holden Caulfield in the novel, a connection that seems to resonate with her own experience.  She’s spunky at times, as critical as Holden is, and searingly cruel in her comments in her journal which only Vera reads.  Another student disagrees with even having these discussions and it is she who will suffer most in a way shocking both to her fellow students and the reader. 

Jen’s journal responses begin to undergo a transformation in which she hints often of suffering and death.  Vera, however, alerts no one and even might be said to have saved Jen but for what?  The police, however, wonder about what they regard as a prurient interest in murder crimes and are closely monitoring Vera’s behavior.

At several points Vera’s communications with Jensen reveal parallel thoughts and feelings, a questionable exchange in which establishing a bond seems to Vera to be more important than notifying professionals about a very troubled and perhaps a criminal student, a reality that in other states by law mandates that a teacher notify school authorities about a dangerous situation with a student.  Vera’s revelations about her own troubled teenage thoughts and words may or may not make a difference to Jen, but to Vera it is worth the risk. Yet the reader will wonder what Jen said that would heal or intensify Jen’s destructive thoughts and desires.

What Has Become of You is a psychological suspense thriller that will keep the reader rapidly turning pages.  It’s plot is carefully structured and defies all reader predictions at many points including the anticlimactic ending.  Very nicely done, Jan Elizabeth Watson and definitely recommended!

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