Review: What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin

What Remains of Me by Alison Gaylin is a spellbinding novel of psychological suspense, set in the glamorous, wealthy world of Hollywood. It is nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Novel.

“It’s like the worst of both worlds.” 

That’s how Kelly Lund sees her home life, and in Alison Gaylin’s hands, this moment of teenage moping runs deeper than we think.

“Sometimes, I think my mom would have been happier if Catherine and I had both died. It’s like … she has this grief and guilt,” Kelly thinks aloud for us. “But since I’m still around, she can’t just get lost in it.”

Kelly, 17, is months away from graduation and the chance to make her way as an adult. Yet, she’s been raised on the precipice of Hollywood—in a blue-collar family, to a make-up artist and stuntman—and two years earlier she watched her twin sister Catherine flounce into the L.A. party scene, spin off-kilter, war with her mother, and run off one night to her death.

It’s this first devastation, rather than what lies ahead for Kelly—including two murder accusations—that gets this novel galloping. It’s also (or should be) what puts this, Gaylin’s 8th book, squarely on so many critics’ shortlists. Rarely is a dark, modern tale driven so much by an understanding of the dynamic of sisters. 

Put aside the clichés of diametric opposites, of good and bad twins, or telepathic, likeminded twins for that matter: for the entirety of the book, Kelly (and through her flashbacks, Catherine) operates according to the gentle, vast code between siblings—where even at their closest they’re wondering what else the other one knows, and when they disagree, both can be making myopic decisions. Above all, they orient toward or away from one another by degrees. Take the small but telling flashback where Kelly and Catherine, alone in their house one daytime, root through a box in their mother’s closet:

In the box was a stack of black-and-white postcards showing the same young woman in four different outfits: a bikini, a nurse’s uniform, a spangled strapless evening dress, and a sexy farm girl outfit complete with pitchfork. In the corner of the cards was the phone number of a talent agent and the name of the busty blond actress in the photos: Rainy Daye. It had taken Kelly a lot longer than Catherine to recognize Rainy Daye as Mom.

“Wow,” Kelly had said. “It’s like we never really knew her.”

“You know what, Kelly, I don’t think anybody really knows each other.”

“Except you and me, right?”

“Except you and me.”

In that moment—of shared discovery and immediately undermined confidences—Kelly just wants a little more reassurance than her sister seems to need. 

This isn’t, we realize, backstory: with Catherine gone, Kelly is cautious but delighted (and yes, reassured) at a new friendship with rebellious Bellamy Marshall, daughter of a famed actor and one of what her mom calls “The People Catherine Met at Parties.”

With those little warnings doing the precise opposite of warning her off, Kelly opens herself to the kind of bond that teenagers manage, illicit and in plain sight—sharing drugs on thick-carpeted bedroom floors, long drives with no destination, and somewhere on this joyride, tripping wires within the Marshall family … and her own. Soon accused of a sensational murder—the shooting of a movie-director friend of the Marshalls, for which the teen endures trial, vilification in the entertainment press, and the immolation of her ties to Bellamy—she with her plaid shirts and peasant skirt takes a long time to question why Bellamy, in her Dior V-neck sweaters, might feel her a threat.

With such growing tension and a read-in-a-day pace, it’s extra (but a fun extra) to find that Gaylin slips in some galling snippets from Kelly’s roasting in the press. From ABC to TMZ represented (one lawyer jokes whether detectives questioning Kelly are “on Harvey’s payroll”), Gaylin makes good choices about how to have these drive but not drown the story.

And for all that brashness, Gaylin knows how to let words echo through the years. To great effect, she lets phrases reverberate at different points—spoken by Catherine and repeated later by those who raised her, loved her, and crossed her path, from ritzy but tacky Hollywood mansion parties to her hardscrabble family’s struggles with their own secrets.

In the best way, Gaylin captures the bleeding together of divided worlds, where the glitz and the grimy reality have a shared family tree.


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Juliet Fletcher is a fiction writer and essayist living in Brooklyn. For the Mystery Writers of America New York chapter, she organizes monthly write-ins for emerging and established authors—and yes, you should stop by, you’re welcome! Come say hi on Twitter at @JulietFletcher


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