Book Review: Before She Disappeared by Lisa Gardner

Before She Disappeared by Lisa Gardner is a propulsive standalone thriller featuring an ordinary woman who will stop at nothing to find the missing people that the rest of the world has forgotten.

Lisa Gardner’s first standalone novel in 20 years pulls no punches as she spins an excellent tale of a middle-aged white woman compelled to seek out the missing. Frankie Elkin is a recovering alcoholic whose life is a series of missing person cases. She haunts the internet, looking for cold cases that the authorities seem to have given up on, heading to each location to see what she can do just by asking questions and being a persistent pain in the butt. She has no special skills or training, but she’s managed to find all 14 of the people she’s started looking for so far. And one day, she fervently hopes, she’ll actually recover one of her missing persons alive.

Her latest case involves 16-year-old Angelique Badeau, a Haitian immigrant living in Boston who vanished off the face of the planet after school one Friday evening. The police figured she’d just taken off to party for the weekend, despite the protests of her aunt and brother, who describe her as studious and determined to become a doctor. Now, nearly a year has passed, and there’s still no sign of her, even with Boston’s heavy camera coverage.

After deciding to take on this search herself, Frankie moves to Angelique’s neighborhood, getting a bartending job and a small room before girding herself to meet Angelique’s Aunt Guerline and younger brother Emmanuel.

This is the moment it becomes real. Where I go from being well-intentioned to being fully committed. I don’t know what will happen next. A tentative welcome, a harsh refusal. A wailing torrent of desperate grief, or steely-eyed suspicion. I’ve experienced it all, and it never gets any less nerve-racking.

 

From here on out, my job is to listen, accept, adapt.

 

And hope, really, truly hope, they don’t hate me too much.

Understandably, Guerline and Emmanuel are wary of this random person coming in and offering help. The local police are even more brusque, warning her off under the assumption that she’s a grifter looking to take advantage of a grieving family. But Frankie’s gift is in not giving up, even when the case seems impossible, even when events turn deadly. As she slowly gains the trust of not only Angelique’s family but also the cops involved, as she slowly works her way closer to a disturbing truth, she begins to believe that this time she’ll finally be able to not only bring a family closure but also bring at least one missing girl safely home.

Before She Disappeared is a very satisfying thriller, based on the actions of real-life people like Lissa Yellowbird-Chase who also conduct amateur searches for missing persons. It’s a novel firmly rooted in modern technology and investigative techniques as well as the minutiae of the life of the urban poor. This realism of Ms. Gardner’s served to assuage, too, any reservations I had of Frankie playing a weird, white-lady-savior role even before our heroine bluntly faces the reality of what she’s doing.

It’s been a hard day. And I’m tired and alone. And white. Dear God, when did I become this impossibly glow-in-the-dark neon white, so that everyone stares at me and no one knows me. My skin color has made me the enemy, a walking advertisement for entitlement and privilege except I don’t feel like any of those things. I feel like I’ve always felt. Broken. As if the whole rest of the world knows something I don’t. Feels things I can’t. Connects in ways I’ve never learned how.

 

Of course, I’ve spent enough time by now in marginalized communities to understand there’s more to that story. That for all my internal angst, the truth is I grew up with limited fears and unlimited dreams. I had implicit faith in authority and never thought to question the system. I had an innate understanding of the world and my place in it. Let alone a roof over my head, food in the fridge, and a safe neighborhood to grow up in.

 

Which is a privilege indeed.

Smart, suspenseful, and socially conscious, this novel knows how to concoct a thriller out of current affairs without cheapening the subject or deriding any of the people involved. Frankie is a troubled, complicated woman determined to do the right thing while also recognizing that she doesn’t have all the answers and is in no place to dictate the affairs of others. She’s a wonderful heroine for our turbulent times. In all honesty, I’m sad that this is a standalone, as I’d love to read more of Frankie and her cases. I’ll just have to check out Ms. Gardner’s many other novels to find more heroines I’ll undoubtedly root for as much as I cheered on Frankie.

See alsoReview: Look for Me by Lisa Gardner

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