Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight (Harper Collins, 2015)
As I read through Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight, I could not get the voice of Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner out of my head. Radner, in her famous sketch based on the 1968 novel The Walls Came Tumbling Down by Babs H. Deal, kept interrupting a meeting in her sorority house to scream, “But what I want to know is, who put the baby in the wall?” What made the gag so hilarious is that most people were familiar with the awful book by Deal, a book that was so poorly written and ridiculous in its plot that it became almost a cult classic, and a book that was so incredibly bad that I have kept it all these years to reread whenever I want to laugh. So then one has to wonder, if The Walls Came Tumbling Down was so bad, why did Radner refer to it several times on SNL, and why do I still think of it today? It was so bad, it is recalled as a symbol of what we thought were innocent times, but really were not.
In The Walls Came Tumbling Down the Delta sorority house is being demolished in a small, college town in Alabama. The workmen discover the skeleton of a baby, which they determine could have been placed in the wall only during a renovation that had taken place 24 years earlier. That renovation had been done during the summer when only seven girls were living in the house. The discovery of the baby's corpse reopens old wounds and innuendos; Joan Friday, who had been married to the now deceased professor, Bill, an older man, who had inspired a poem in another girl, Sandy; B.J., who had played tennis all summer with a handsome tennis pro, but ended up married to the heir to a paper mill, Mary Alice, who owns a local dress shop, and Edithe, who is the proprietor of the local beauty salon. The seven women who were friends that fateful summer, now eye each other closely to figure out “who put the baby in the wall?”
That brings us to Where They Found Her, Kimberly McCreight's second novel. The book opens with The Prologue, written in the first person narrative. The speaker concludes the brief piece with this statement, “When I pull my hands out, they're covered in blood. For a second I think it's mine. But it's not mine. It's the baby's blood. All over me again, just like it was an hour ago.” (p.2)
So, “Who put the baby in the woods?” (Sound familiar?)
The narrative jumps in the second section of the book to a recorded discussion between the main character of the story, Molly Sanderson, and her psychiatrist, who probes Molly with the statement, “Molly, I think it's time you told me how you lost the baby.” (p.4) Molly is in therapy to purge herself of the guilt she carries for bearing a stillborn daughter into the world. Immediately the reader thinks, “Aha, this must be the baby that is alluded to in the Prologue,” but indeed it is not. Also, we do not learn until the end of the novel why Molly is eaten up with the guilt of losing her child.
Molly, her husband, Justin, an English professor at Ridgedale University, and their young daughter, Ella, are trying to fit into the society of their new home town. Molly has abandoned her former career as a lawyer who worked in legislative public policy for the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, due to the pain of her personal loss. She has taken a job as a reporter for the local newspaper, The Ridgedale Reader, when her editor sends her out to cover the story of a body that has been found on the campus of the university where her husband works. When Molly learns that the corpse is that of a newborn, trepidation of investigating the story, which hits too close to home for her, she contemplates backing out of the assignment. Her husband, who is so protective of her slim hold on reality, discourages her from taking the story. However, to face her own demons, Molly decides to pursue the case as it unfolds, taking many twists as the novel continues.
There are a number of complicated characters in McCreight's story, including a troubled teenage girl, named Sandy. Nearly homeless, Sandy has been abandoned, apparently, by her unstable mother, Jenna, who has returned to Ridgedale to confront demons of her own from a bad night a long time ago. Jenna's story, as it develops, is linked to a death that had occurred many years before in almost the exact same spot where the body of the baby has been found. What is the link, if any, between the body of the little girl and what Jenna had confronted twenty-five years before?
Molly has become acquainted with other mothers in Ridgedale, through her six year old, Ella. There are Barbara and Stella, two women who have nothing but disdain for each other. Both women harbor secrets, that if discovered can destroy Molly professionally as well as personally. Barbara is married to Steve, the chief of police in town, who is in charge of the investigation, and to whom Molly must go to answer questions about the baby's identity and cause of death. But Steve has secrets harbored from his past as well, and if his secrets are exposed, they can destroy him.
Justin, Molly's seemingly devoted husband, who has been so protective of her since the death of their newborn, has returned to a romantic, old habit from the couple's past. He leaves lines from famous poems and other literature in Molly's coat pockets, to surprise and delight her during the day. But as any reader can predict, those apparently romantic notes take on a different connotation later in the story.
McCreight employs the technique of changing point of view throughout the novel. At times the narrative is told in the first person; at times it is told through third person. There are diary entries, recordings of therapy sessions, and letters that are used to weave the tale together. Although the effect is a little jumbled in terms of following the plot line, it does create a fast paced read and maintains the interest of the reader.
While Where They Found Her is a better book than The Walls Came Tumbling Down, there were too many similarities to dismiss them as not being akin to each other. Both novels are set in a small college town and involve young women, whose stories are told from the past to the present. A dead baby is the cornerstone of each story, and secrets that have been guarded tenderly for decades are revealed after many turns. However, the biggest difference between the old Deal book and McCreight's novel, is that by the end of The Walls Came Tumbling Down, the reader had figured out the mystery. In McCreight's story, due to the many red herrings dropped in along the way, I didn't see what was coming in the resolution of Molly's story, so the book ended with the element of surprise. Molly concludes her story with this line, “Because Justin had been right about one thing: Not everything about where you're going has to be about where you've been, ” (p. 324) and that final statement is a truism about life in general. Sometimes we have to shake off our baggage, accept our frailties, and just move on with our own twisted tales.