Eighteen-year-old Jill Charron wakes up in a hospital with a terrible headache, a broken leg, and no idea why. Her divorced parents are both present, so she knows something terrible has happened, but her memory has erased the past six weeks, including her much-anticipated student Italian tour with Adventures Abroad. At first, her immediate struggle is to remember words, which disappear before she can say them, a condition, her doctors tell her, is the aphasia that comes from her brain injury. But slowly, she learns that she was the driver in a one-car accident in Italy, in which her friend, Simone, was killed. And that the Italian police, in common with Simone’s parents, the press, and the social media, think she is guilty of murder. Desperately, Jill tries to remember what happened, sustained only by the knowledge that Simone has been her best friend since fourth grade, and that she would never hurt Simone.
But is that true? As Eileen Cook weaves Jill’s first-person narrative with the testimony of people on the staff of Adventures Abroad (including Nico, the attendant who was fired for having an affair with Jill), interviews with Jill and Simone’s parents, teachers, and friends, and the comments on the website “Justice for Simone,” the reader begins to understand a disturbing undercurrent in Jill and Simone’s relationship. There was a class difference: Simone’s strict parents were at best lower middle class; Jill’s father could afford a private plane to fly her back to the United States, and is currently paying a lawyer $350 an hour to defend her. Simone is popular but no scholar and hasn’t applied to college; Jill has been accepted at Yale early decision. Simone has fought successfully to become prom queen; Jill was involved in a group that tried to get rid of that tradition because of its injustice to the LGBT community.
And Jill, seriously committed to social justice, had a blog on different political themes – but shut it down because of the abuse of an annihilating troll. The truth looks more and more complicated the more the reader knows.
The compelling interest of the book is not its who-done-it aspect, but its gradual revelation of complexities of a friendship – and the vexed inter-relationship of narrative and truth. Social media and a host of reporters build one narrative: Jill’s lawyer builds another: Jill’s rehab roommate builds a third. As Jill’s memory starts to come back, her therapist warns her that what she “remembers” may be not the truth she has been seeking, but the narrative others have constructed. Thus, though Jill is not sure she can trust the few memories that come back to her, her increasing understanding of the power of narrative leads to a truly chilling conclusion. Don’t skip to the end! Allow Cook to lead you through the labyrinth of truth, falsehood, friendship, and betrayal to a fascinating consideration of the power of story.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.