Title: The Vanishing Season
Author: Jodi Lynn Anderson
Length: 258 pages
My star rating: ★ ★
Note: This review is (relatively) spoiler-free. I have included some hidden spoilers in my Goodreads review.
The Vanishing Season is about three friends—Maggie, Liam, and Pauline—who live in an isolated town on Lake Michigan. Maggie has just moved to town, but Pauline and Liam grew up there together. Liam is sweet and gentle and almost puppyish in his devotion to the flighty, beautiful Pauline, who is only interested in him as a friend. The introduction of a third person into this dynamic of course leads to much teen angst and melodrama.
It is also, ostensibly, a ghost story with elements of a murder mystery, though it fails in both respects. At best, it’s a tragic coming-of-age story, though not a unique one.
Three things really sunk this book.
The first was its ambition. It tried to cover too many bases: paranormal, romance, coming-of-age, realistic fiction, and crime all at once. The murder subplot was there to add tension and keep both the characters and the readers on their toes, which I get—but it still felt like a cheap trick. The blurb and title both implied that the disappearances of young girls would be central to the plot, but it was more an afterthought than anything.
There was no real plot to speak of, but what little there was had nothing to do with kidnapping or murder.
On that note, I’m sure I sound like the people who see Jesus in toast, but my God, has Jodi Lynn Anderson ever read/seen The Silence of the Lambs. A master of suspense, she is not, but she has lifted ideas almost wholesale from that story.
A small geographic region where young women go missing and whose bodies then turn up in bodies of water in the fall/winter? Check.
Moths and butterflies are of symbolic importance? Check.
An unconventionally smart, practical, and responsible—overachieving even—MC who is also a runner? Check.
Another female character who lost her beloved father at a young age; who dreams of getting far away from her small town; who is so breathtakingly beautiful that half the boys she know lust after her; and who once released all the chickens from a chicken factory as a child? (sigh) Check.
These things may not be glaring to people who aren’t as
obsessed interested in Harris’ books as I am, and I understand everyone is inspired by something, but where is the line between “inspiration” and borderline plagiarism?
(The influence of other works are evident here too—think Twin Peaks with the lonely-small-town-where-girls-go-missing-and-one-escapes-from-the-murderer’s-trailer subplot, or The Book Thief with the ghostly “narrator” forever reminding readers that
Himmel Water Street is the center of the action. )
That brings me to a larger point, though. The second downfall of Anderson’s book was its characters.
It wasn’t even that the characters were flat. Some came off as a little too Delightfully Quirky to me, but Maggie and her friends at least had some flesh on their bones. In a better story, they could have been engaging, charming, and likeable, and since The Vanishing Season had so little plot to speak of, it ought to have been a character study. Yet the book was so short and written so distantly and abstractly that it was hard to get a grasp on even the three central characters.
And personality or no, they still came off as pretty cliché.
Maggie is too smart for school (literally). She was a spoiled upper-middle class girl until her parents lost their jobs. She likes to do all the typical YA heroine things: read, run, and draw. She’s also supposedly very mature and responsible: she helps around the house and gets a part-time job first thing to save for college. Her mom jokes that she’s “the only teenager who never complains,” because Maggie isn’t a Regular Teen, she’s a Cool Teen who has her life planned out! She pretends not to be bothered by moving to the middle of nowhere, but it’s still left her a little bitter.
Pauline is basically a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is both Fantastically Beautiful and also Enormously Wealthy. She likes to “live it up” with her not-boyfriend, Liam, because she’s still haunted by her father’s premature death and knows Life Is Short (so Enjoy It While You Can). For her, that means canoeing and camping on the beach rather than the more predictable sex, drugs, and/or partying. She’s also either blind to others’ feelings or is completely insensitive, but either way, it isn’t endearing, especially when it comes to…
Liam. His main personality traits are Being Crafty and Being In Love with Pauline. He calls himself “kind of a one-girl guy,” and is sweetly old-fashioned in general, but he is so In Love that his devotion borders on obsession and comes off as somewhat creepy. He embodies the sort of male character I usually love (a young version of the “Atticus Finch model,” as I think of it), but he was just a bit too difficult to connect with, a little to unrealistic, here.
Pauline was of course under no obligation to return Liam’s feelings. I also understand the desire to preserve a friendship without making it awkward by confronting unrequited feelings head-on. But Liam’s love was so painfully obvious—he spends his entire summer building Pauline a sauna because she hates winter—that Pauline seemed downright cruel for acting like they were “just friends” and failing to be as honest with Liam as she is with Maggie by telling him that she doesn’t care for him in a romantic way.
Not as blind to his charms as Pauline, Maggie quickly develops a crush on Liam herself. That’s where things get awkward. The love triangle could have been an engaging part of the plot, but instead, it felt forced and made me dislike all three characters.
The whole mess was melodramatic and unpleasant.
Add to that that the characters never grew or changed—Maggie remained slightly aloof, never willing to voice her feelings or fight for what she wanted; Liam remained stuck on Pauline; Pauline remained indecisive, rash, and oblivious to other people’s feelings.
The prose was also pretty weak. It just didn’t work for me. I didn’t think the book was all that well-written. Take gems like these:
Still, she wanted things other people wanted. She just carefully wanted them.
Maggie stared at it. It was covered in pictures of Grumpy Cat, an angry blue-eyed cat from the Internet.
Maggie felt physically unable to move.
It was heavy-coat weather but not freeze-your-nose-hairs frigid.
The ghosts of Door County are making the lightning dance. By trying to dance with one another.
Maggie could feel herself hiding; her whole face felt like a mask. She made the wildly hurting parts small inside herself.
The paranormal aspect could have been cool—ghosts that can pass through time and space at will, but who are continually drawn to certain people and places—but Anderson made it vague and impossible to follow. To the novel’s credit, it did have a rather haunting tone, though not due to the ghost “narrator.” (I feel disingenuous calling this “character” a “narrator,” since it adds virtually nothing to the story. Like Death in The Book Thief, the ghost tells us it’s drawn to Maggie and her friends, but that’s about it. Death was an active narrator with a stake, however small, in the characters’ lives and in the larger story. The ghost here is not.)
And there’s an undertone of “oh, poor disadvantaged women” here that also annoyed me. Poor women, always being admired for their beauty. Rude!
A news announcer was describing [the missing girl] as bright and beautiful and promising. … Maggie watched, bothered. Why did reporters always mention how the dead or missing girls looked? As if it mattered. Did they say missing guys were handsome?
And of course it matters what the missing girl looked like—it might help someone identify her. But that’s sexist (duh).
And on the other side of the coin:
Liam frowned thoughtfully. “I can’t help [doing whatever she asks me]. My dad taught me that’s what guys are supposed to do. If a girl wants something, you’re supposed to do whatever you can to give it to her.”
Fine, do anything a girl asks—even the bad or inconsiderate or ungrateful ones, Mr. Witte?—but neither girl in this story seems worth that sort of devotion.
And as for the vague, unsatisfactory ending, after reading Jessica Warman’s Between and Beautiful Lies, it didn’t really shock me. It just left me numb. It seemed especially pointless given the murder mystery-that-wasn’t. And Warman knows how to make you connect with her characters, something that Anderson couldn’t do here, which actually made you feel something at the end of her books.
To make sum up this very long review, I’ll say this:
If Anderson had focused on one thing—the ghost story, the crime story, or the coming-of-age story—she might have succeeded in writing a compelling novel. Since she tried to write all three, she failed. If she had used fewer clichés when developing her characters, they might have been more sympathetic or at least more dynamic; instead I couldn’t sympathize and actively disliked them. All these faults combined to create a rather confusing, disjointed, and dull book.