Sunday, May 03, 2020

Before She Was Helen

This is definitely an adult title, but WOW! It's perfect for readers who loved The Face on the Milk Carton when it came out thirty years ago, whether they were 12 at the time, or in their forties, like Helen would have been. It has so many different levels of impact, and was a fascinating but devastating read. If you need a book to read for yourself, treat yourself to this one.

As a former Latin teacher from Ohio, I wanted to know a little more about Helen's career!

Cooney, Caroline B. Before She Was Helen
May 5th 2020 by Poisoned Pen Press
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Clemmie lives a careful and circumspect life in a retirement village in the South. She teaches Latin part time, plays cards, and checks on her neighbors. She also has two cell phones, one for her family, and one for everyone else, to whom she is Helen. When her next door neighbor, the unpleasant Dom, doesn't check in with her, she does to his house to investigate. She doesn't find him, but does find an odd door that goes to a connecting unit, rarely inhabited by couple who keep to themselves. She takes a picture of an interesting glass sculpture to send to her niece and nephew, but doesn't worry too much about Dom, since his golf cart is gone. Things, however, escalate. Her nephew does an image search for the glass, and finds out it is stolen drug paraphernalia worth a lot of money, and manages to let the creator and owner, Boro, know his great-aunt has it. Boro is determined to get it back, and hunts Clemmie down. Clemmie worries, because her own back story has been very complicated, and she has been living under an assumed identity since college. As the drug related mystery evolves, so does a fifty year old cold case from Connecticut that is all too familiar to Clemmie. The coach of her brother's team, Rudyard Creek, was killed in a highway picnic area, and the murderer was never found. In flashbacks, we find out what her connection to this case was as the events surrounding Boro and Dom, as well as her neighbors, unfold at the retirement village. Clemmie has always been careful, but will this one misstep disarray all of her careful plans?
Trigger warnings: Rape, drug use, stalking.
Strengths: This was an utterly captivating and intense novel; I had to take a break halfway through it because I just needed to breathe! The details about both the present problems and the past ones were so well thought out and intricately arranged that I found myself almost holding my breath on several occasions. I was completely amazed by Clemmie's resiliency and resourcefulness in the face of horrible things that happened to her and kept happening to her, and by how she was able to create a new identity because of the lack of paper trails in the past. I don't want to spoil the twists and turns by saying too much. This was an excellent read, and I appreciated that the character was an older woman with a past!
Weaknesses: As a former Latin teacher from Ohio, I just really wanted an entire book about Clemmie's career in the last several decades of the 1900s.
What I Really Think: This was just exquisite. Cooney has an impressive range, from picture books to historical fiction to medical mysteries, but this was by far her best book. Not only that, but even though it has several disturbing topics, the story is delivered with discretion for those of us who are used to the profanity and detail free books of middle grade. I sort of want a follow up about how Clemmie's life proceeds after the book ends, but it's not really need it. We are given the hints we need to imagine her new life.

Ms. Yingling

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