High school senior Nicole and her sister, Dara, were born less than a year apart and have been inseparable in that love-hate way of close siblings. But after the sisters are involved in a car accident in which Dara is seriously injured, their relationship deteriorates – they barely speak to each other and their fermenting rivalry over Parker, the boy next door, further widens the split. Meanwhile, a local 9 year-old girl has gone missing while in the care of her older sister, and when Dara goes missing on her birthday, Nick suspects there is a connection.
Oliver has got a gift for creating interesting, credible characters and I appreciate that they usually come from unexceptional, blue collar homes. In Vanishing Girls, she perfectly captures the sororal dynamic between Nick and Dara, and we see it from both sides as the sisters narrate different chapters. Nick is the ‘good girl’ and is scornful of Dara’s more outgoing, devil may care attitude, while envying her looks and popularity. Dara is ‘the attractive one’ and resents Nick’s ability to please adults, while scoffing at her compliance and squareness.
But this is a strange mixture of a book. It starts out as a fairly straightforward realistic novel, and even has a bit of lighthearted fun as Nick gets a job at a local theme park. Then it builds in two mysteries – what led up to the car accident (Nick has one of those convenient YA literary bouts of amnesia, and Dara isn’t saying) and what has happened to little Madeline Snow. And then, finally, takes a turn to the dark, with the last half of the book being a blow by blow account of the evening of Dara’s birthday, in which both mysteries are not only shown to be linked but are resolved. Plus, of course, there is the love triangle, with the unremarkable, and only sketchily developed, Parker.
This weird juxtaposition of moods, combined with a complicated time structure and a mishmash of straightforward narrative along with emails, diary entries, letters and local news reports, makes this a more ambitious but less successful novel than, say, Oliver’s Panic (2014). I feel that less might have been more in this case, and that the revelations at the end weakened the novel, rather than augmented it. But that’s just me.
Nonetheless, it’s a gripping page turner, and I ripped through it in a couple of days. I always feel a little thrill when I see Lauren Oliver’s name on a novel, but I’m just not sure she’s entirely found her own groove. This one is reminiscent of recent novels like E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars (Delacorte, 2014) and Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar (Dutton, 2014), as well as throwing in the before/after structure of Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun (Dial, 2014). There’s enough good stuff in Vanishing Girls for me to recommend it, but I’m still waiting for Ms Oliver’s Big One.
Thanks to Edelweiss for the free review copy.