Thursday, July 31, 2014

Reading Elizabeth Little's Vibrant "Dear Daughter"

Elizabeth Little's debut novel, Dear Daughter, is a wild ride from start to finish.  The author creates an engaging first-person narrator, who is both sympathetic and narcissistic.  The gutsy survivor, Jane Jenkins, is determined to discover the truth about her mother's brutal murder, a crime for which Jane was convicted and incarcerated for 10 years.  As the tale opens, the protagonist has been released on a technicality and sets out on a journey of (self-) discovery.  Her assertive voice is immediately established when she declares, " I mean, come on, you didn't think I was just going to disappear, did you? That I would skulk off and live in the shadows?" Janie resolutely refuses to remain in the shadows even though public opinion weighs strongly against her: most view her as just another privileged Beverly Hills celebutante who got away with, yes, murder. Janie's recollections of that night are hazy at best. Inebriated, she stumbled upon her mother's bullet-riddled corpse, unable to explain to the authorities what occurred, and why she is covered in blood. Little spices up the narrative by interspersing lively chapters with court testimony, celebrity gossip columns, prison interviews, and excerpts from fictive books treating the scandalous murder saga. It seems that the entire country has a stake in this ongoing drama. Is Janie innocent or guilty? And what will she do next?

Apart from the unforgettable protagonist, Little creates a secondary cast of characters residing in Ardelle and Adeline, South Dakota, dreary mining towns that may hold secrets to the murdered woman's past. Who is the real Marion Elsinger, the much-married Swiss American philanthropist?  Janie progressively peels away the layers of deception that help explain her troubled relationship to a mother adept at role playing. Janie was drawn to Marion's mystique, while repelled by her social pretensions and harsh criticisms  This ambivalence likewise marks Jane's relationships with men, including her long-suffering attorney, Noah; a perversely charming cop named Leo who may or may not be corrupt; and a father, whose identity, like much else in the novel, remains up in the air.   Duplicity drives this narrative: no one is what he or she appears, there is always more than meets the eye. 

Dear Daughter is a must read for fans of Gillian Flynn, who excels at creating dark, self­ destructive protagonists and unexpected plot twists.  Elizabeth Little is also willing to take her admittedly flawed "heroine" further into realms that many genre writers resist, preferring safer, likeable main characters. Janie Jenkins offers a "breaking bad(der)" version of such established figures as Stephanie Plum and V.I. Warshawski.  Certainly, the spectacular ending twist leaves the door wide open for future sagas.  Many readers will clamor to discover what Janie will do next.

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