Book Review: Don’t Forget the Girl by Rebecca McKanna
Bree, Chelsea, and Abby have been best friends since grade school. In 2003, they were all enrolled as students at the University of Iowa. Bree sometimes feels like a third wheel in the relationship, as Abby and Chelsea have known each other longer, come from privileged backgrounds, and even have their own apartment together. Though Bree and Abby are closer than Bree is with Chelsea, Bree and Abby’s shared acting studies often feel as if they spark more competition than commiseration, adding another dimension to their already complicated friendship.
When the three girls get into a huge fight on Halloween night, it’s Abby who gets left behind at the cemetery while the other two head home. Abby subsequently disappears, an event that changes Bree and Chelsea’s lives forever.
Months later, serial killer Jon Allan Blue is caught and convicted of several other murders. The general consensus is that he was responsible for Abby’s death too. Not only does she fit his preferred victim profile, he’d known her from their time together at university. Bree and Chelsea certainly believe that he killed her, despite Blue proclaiming his innocence of any and all crimes.
While they tried to stay strong during the initial search for Abby, Bree and Chelsea’s friendship does not long survive the aftermath of her disappearance. Separately, they enter personal tailspins that they’re only partially successful in hiding from the rest of the world. As Blue’s execution date looms closer, a shocking discovery pushes Bree to reach out to the friend she hasn’t talked to in over a decade.
At the same time, Chelsea’s desire to keep Abby’s memory alive compels her to contact a famous true crime podcast host. Chelsea wants to offer the world a fresh perspective on the murderous crime spree, putting the victims at the forefront instead of glamorizing the man who killed them. When Chelsea asks Bree to come on the podcast too, Bree hesitates. She’s gun shy of doing any more interviews after their disastrous efforts soon after Abby’s disappearance, but is finally convinced by a thought that’s long plagued her:
It’s such a small thing, but it hurts. When someone is dead, they can’t set the record straight. They can’t interject and say, Actually, this is who I was. This is what I wanted. The living are left to assert their version of the dead as the real one. Not for the first time, Bree remembers she and Chelsea grieve two different people, two different Abbys. If Bree lets Chelsea be the only person Rachel Morgan interviews on Infamous, it will be Chelsea’s version of Abby who’s cemented into public record.
Will the two women finally reunite and get to the truth of what happened to their friend? Perhaps just as importantly, will they be able to exorcise the demons that tore them apart, and reforge their bond anew?
This riveting thriller explores, in shifting timelines and narrative voices, what it means to lose and to grieve someone dearly loved, particularly in the context of complex female friendships. Don’t Forget the Girl deftly examines the practice of whitewashing people’s lives, whether in the present or the past, to make them seem “acceptable” to society and thus worth caring about. The book asks: What makes a young woman good? What makes a girl worth remembering?
Further complicating things is the secret that Abby hid in 2003. Chelsea pushes her to come clean, but Abby, for many sensible reasons, doesn’t want to. She deflects, telling Chelsea:
“Maybe I’m just not as brave as you.”
“That’s a cop-out,” Chelsea says. “You’re the one who gets on stage in front of people.”
How can you explain it to her? That’s the exact opposite of what she’s asking you to do. To stand on stage, playing a part, is the most satisfying thing in the world. Look at me, you tell people. Look at this illusion I’ve made. You can stare at me but you’re really seeing someone else, someone I created just for you. But invite people to look at who you really are?
“I’m not ready yet,” you say.
The tension of this desire to be seen yet to remain unknown runs through the heart of this thoughtful, affecting novel. Our three main characters’ emotionally tangled teenage years are set alight in the crucible of Abby’s disappearance, leaving Bree and Chelsea to flail over the course of the decade that follows despite their best efforts to pretend that they’re doing just fine. Their experience in reuniting and confronting the truth about themselves and Abby is cathartic, even if the outcome is ultimately bittersweet. This novel is an exemplary portrait of women trying their best to live with honesty and grace in the early 21st century, while finding justice for a friend who can no longer claim it for herself.