Before We Were Strangers
by Brenda Novak
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Length: 384 Pages
Release date: December 4, 2018
Something happened to her mother that night. Something no one wants to talk about. But she’s determined to uncover her family’s dark secrets, even if they bury her.
Five-year-old Sloane McBride couldn’t sleep that night. Her parents were arguing again, their harsh words heating the cool autumn air. And then there was that other sound–the ominous thump before all went quiet.
In the morning, her mother was gone. The official story was that she left. Her loving, devoted mother! That hadn’t sat any better at the time than it did when Sloane moved out at eighteen, anxious to leave her small Texas hometown in search of anywhere else. But not even a fresh start working as a model in New York could keep the nightmares at bay. Or her fears that the domineering father she grew up with wasn’t just difficult–he was deadly.
Now another traumatic loss forces Sloane to realize she owes it to her mother to find out the truth, even if it means returning to a small town full of secrets and lies, a jilted ex-boyfriend and a father and brother who’d rather see her silenced. But as Sloane starts digging into the past, the question isn’t whether she can uncover what really happened that night…it’s what will remain of her family if she does?
My thanks to The Girly Book Club and Booktrib for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher.
The concept behind Before We Were Strangers felt really promising to me, and I was excited to dig into it. The protagonist is seeking to solve a 23 year old disappearance and she suspects her own father; that should surely come with an interesting set of challenges. Unfortunately, the novel fell really flat for me, and I think a lot of my issues with it can be summed up by saying that it simply did not have believable character motivations in a lot of different plot points.
For starters: the romance. Sloane’s high school boyfriend, Micah, and her best friend, Paige, married after Sloane skipped town at 18. When Sloan returns to her hometown early in this story, their marriage has fallen apart because (obviously) no one could ever hold a candle to Sloan (groan) and Micah is still hung up on his high school girlfriend when he’s pushing 30. I truly hope it’s self evident to anyone over the age of 22 why this just makes me cringe. It’s not romantic, it’s obsessive and weird. The only thing that throws this into the “romance” category rather than “stalker” category is the fact that it’s somehow miraculously reciprocated. Your high school sweetheart being The One can be a cute angle; less so when your high school sweetheart is still pining after you after 10 years of no contact.
Strike two: big, bad daddy. As is clear from the blurb, Sloane returns home in large part to confirm her suspicions that her father was responsible for her mother’s disappearance. From the sound of things, it appears that most of the people in town agree with that sentiment; they’re all just too terrified of him to do anything about it. What can they possibly do to stand up to this intimidating, powerful… small town mayor? Yes, he has money and connections, but surely I’m not the only one who had trouble buying that an entire town would suspect him of murdering his own wife and yet be cowed by his seemingly unlimited power as… mayor.
Sloane’s brother, Randy, stands by their father to a frankly confusing degree, seemingly for no other reason than to provide a contrast to Sloane and throw one more obstacle at her. We are shown over and over just how horrific of a person their father is, in regards to his parenting, his treatment of women, and his willingness to manipulate everyone around him for his own gain. And yet Randy is his most steadfast supporter, despite being older than Sloane and presumably more aware of the abuse their mother suffered at his hands before her disappearance.
His jaw hardened. “You’re crazy! Our mother abandoned us! That’s the harsh truth you’re trying to avoid–and you’re willing to risk sending our father to prison in order to achieve it. Why? How will tainting Dad’s reputation or getting him embroiled in a police investigation help you or me or anyone else?”
“Our mother deserves justice!”
“And our father deserves more thanks than to have his daughter return to town only because she’s bent on destroying him.”
Finally, the writing style as a whole fell really flat for me. The dialog often felt clunky and unnatural, and the descriptions were sometimes unintentionally funny when they were meant to be building tension. One such example is this: “He hurried through the dining room to the kitchen and saw a large knife lying on the floor. That caused him to gulp, but it was nothing compared to finding the blood on the carpet…” The phrase “that caused him to gulp” was so awkward and cartoonish and that it made me burst out laughing in the middle of the climax of a thriller. I’m going to have to go out on a limb and say that’s probably not what the author was going for with that line.
Overall, this was just a disappointment for me. It had such great potential as a concept, but the plot felt incredibly flimsy, the characters consistently lacked believable motivations, and the writing was really unpolished. Novak has a good deal of novels under her belt, but this felt like a first attempt.
Thank you for reading! Have you read any of Novak’s work? Please share your thoughts in the comments!