Saturday, October 23, 2010

The trail of what-ifs and if-onlys

Fragile: A Novel
by Lisa Unger

When I read Lisa Unger's breakout novel, Beautiful Lies, a few years ago, I fell in love with the novel's protagonist. The jacket copy on her most recent novel, Fragile, makes it sound like it's built around psychologist Maggie Cooper, wife of a police detective and mother of a potential suspect in a girl's disappearance. But the truth is that Maggie's not a strong enough character to build a novel around. Fragile is more of an ensemble piece, and Unger spends the first 50 pages introducing a sprawling cast of characters.

As noted above, the plot revolves around the disappearance of Rick Cooper's 17-year-old girlfriend, Char, who may or may not be a runaway. Taking place in The Hollows, a small town in upstate New York, Char's disappearance is an eerie reminder of another teenage girl's disappearance a generation before. That earlier crime touched the lives of many of the novel's central characters.

The first chapter of Fragile, set in the present, seems to be incredibly damning of one of the characters. After that opening scene, we go back in time a month to see the events leading up to that scene, and as expected, guilt and innocence are not at all cut and dried. As with any good who-done-it, there will be several suspects to consider, and in this case any number of crimes that may or may not have taken place. At one point a character reflects, "What gave her comfort when she did choose to walk that dark terrain, follow the trail of what-ifs and if-onlys, was that she wasn't the only person in The Hollows with memories and buried secrets. Not by a long shot."

Unger sets a dour tone for the tale, with plenty of sentences along the lines of, "On the wire above him, a mourning dove cooed, low and inconsolable." It felt a bit heavy-handed, but whatever. I don't believe this is Ms. Unger's strongest work, but her strongest work is pretty darn hard to top. Fragile is actually an enjoyable psychological thriller. I can't rave about it, but for fans of the author or the genre, it's well worth your time.

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