A faded pop star who has retired to Woodstock shows up late one night at the Hudson Valley town of Havenkill's police station to report her Jaguar stolen and a teenager boy run over while attempting to help her. Though Amy Nathanson, stage name "Aimee En," may not be a main character in Alison Gaylin's latest mystery If I Die Tonight, she's one of the many unique parts of a terrific whole. And like any past-her-prime, B-list celebrity in a small town, she remains an A-list star in her own mind.
The tragic carjacking is a catalyst for a topical storyline that explores the struggles of single-parenthood and teenage angst both navigating the tricky currents of social and cyber bullying. Real estate agent Jackie Reed is the single mother who defiantly stands by her secretive, loner son Wade as the walls literally close in on him due to his dubious whereabouts on that fateful night. To further complicate his reputation, a past incident with his father's new wife reveals a potentially darker personality, something his peers at school are all too happy to jump on. As both mother and son are more and more ostracized by their friends and community they manage to pull even further apart from each other, creating a perfect storm of conflict and guilt.
Gaylin, author of the acclaimed Brenna Spector series and Edgar Award Finalist for What Remains of Me, is truly at home here drawing on her familiar environments of Dutchess and Ulster counties. Hudson Valley readers will appreciate her descriptions of bedroom communities reminiscent of Rhinebeck or Red Hook, cultural melting-pot crowds gathered in industrial nightclubs that could be found off any side street of Hudson or Kingston, and, of course, musicians of yesteryear that are as common as the deer crossing the back roads of Woodstock.
Gaylin has always specialized in charting the complex connections between parent and child, and with this novel she may have perfected her skills. There is no sugar-coating the silences in the home of a mother and her two teenage sons. And just as the two boys disappear into their coded and consuming worlds of social media, Gaylin deftly weaves these texts, threads, chats and posts into her own prose (the novel actually opens with Wade's suicide note posted on his mother's Facebook page). It's a risky trick to capture the genuine feel of such youthful new-tech communication, but Gaylin aces it and the result not only gives depth to the young characters, but adds dimension to the many plot twists.
Officer Pearl Maze is caught up in the middle of this struggling mother and her troubled son, as well as the other boy clinging to life from his bad encounter with the washed-up pop star who's more worried about the whereabouts of her missing car than the fate of the victim who tried to help. Maze comes with her own baggage of a troubled family past and current intimacy issues, but Gaylin smartly gives us a solid character to lead us through the mounting lies, innuendoes and accusations. When all of Havenkill seems about to implode, Officer Maze alone maintains a pursuit of truth without rushing to judgement.
The Golden Notebook hosts a reading and signing with Alison Gaylin on March 7, 7pm, at the Colony in Woodstock. She will be in conversation with Abigail Thomas and joined by musical guest the Xtractions.