Bret Anthony Johnston is the director of creative writing at Harvard, which seemed reason enough to check out his first novel, Remember Me Like This. It comes with good reviews, including one from the Globe, and a vague marketing patina of suspense. It's the story of what happens when a kidnapped teenager returns to his family after four years in the clutches of a pedophile.
For no very good reason I can trace now, I expected a literary thriller set in the tabloid heartland, a slightly more "respectable" version of Gone Girl. But Remember Me Like This is something else entirely, a quite serious and finely observed novel of a contemporary family trying to survive the worst of circumstances. While there is a bit of suspense - What parent of a kidnapped child hasn't thought of ending the kidnapper? - but the real tension here comes from the simple question of whether the Campbells can keep themselves together, individually and collectively. Their truths are more complicated than you'll find on any TV newsmagazine.
The first pages of the novel chart, perhaps at more length than than necessary, the build up to the moment when his family learns that long-missing Justin Campbell has been found alive, not really all that far from his home in a coastal Texas town near Corpus Christi. We see how his absence has haunted each member of his family, even as they continue to post flyers and search crowds of strangers for his face. His father, Eric, is having an affair and torturing himself with guilt. His mother, Laura, fears with some reason that she is losing her sanity, a feeling assuaged only in the overnight hours she spends as a volunteer watching over a sick dolphin in a rehab tank. His younger brother, Griff, loses himself in skateboarding, barely recognizing that a girl who's a friend would like to be his girlfriend. Also in focus is Justin's grandfather, a onetime tough guy, now an aging widower.
It should be happy news when Justin comes home, and it is. But it's complicated. Four years of awful loss cause wounds that leave scars even as they heal - and many don't heal at all. Each member of the family shares only a part of their pain with the others, hoarding secrets, creating wrong impressions, drifting apart. On the surface, Justin is the least troubled of them all, despite four years of abuse and the threats and Stockholm Syndrome that kept him with his abductor even though he was gradually allowed to roam free. You'll find yourself rooting for him and Griff, and to varying degrees the adults in their lives, even as ideas of justice and revenge begin to take hold in some of their minds.