“She’s not there” is another solid suspense story which has disturbing similarities to the true case of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. I’m not sure if the author used this case as a jumping off point for her novel, but it seems likely.
The story is told from two perspectives fifteen years apart. Caroline Shipley, her husband Hunter, and their two young daughters travel from San Diego to Rosarita, Mexico to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary. Caroline thinks she will have a relaxing time with her husband but when she arrives she discovers that he has invited three other couples to help them celebrate. When on the final day of their vacation the babysitting service of the hotel says that their service was cancelled, Caroline goes along with her husband’s suggestion that as the restaurant is within sight of their hotel room, they leave the girls alone and check on them periodically throughout the evening. He has an anniversary surprise planned and doesn’t want Caroline to miss out. At the end of the evening, which for myriad reasons goes less than swimmingly, Caroline returns to the hotel room only to find that her youngest daughter, two year-old Samantha, has vanished.
Skip ahead fifteen years to the present. Samantha was never discovered and Caroline has borne the brunt of suspicion the whole time. She has lost her job as a math teacher on several occasions, her marriage has broken up, she has a tenuous and volatile relationship with her other daughter, Michelle. Each year on the anniversary of Samantha’s disappearance, the press descends on the family with innuendo and the resurfacing of the family’s pain. Tormented by guilt, Caroline blames herself for everything that happened.
When the papers revisit the Shipley’s tragedy on the fifteenth anniversary of their daughter’s disappearance, they include a drawing of how Samantha might look now. A young girl from Calgary, Alberta sees the paper and believes herself to be the missing girl. When she contacts Caroline, the family chide her for taking the girl seriously as many times over the last fifteen years they have faced scams and disappointment.
Essentially a novel of mothers and daughters, the story delves into Caroline’s relationship with her remaining daughter who has always been needy, and not very loveable. Caroline fears that deep in her heart she loved the missing Samantha more than the present Michelle. The book also examines Caroline’s relationship with her own mother, Mary, an unpleasant, miserable and judgmental woman who herself always favored Caroline’s brother over her daughter.
Even though her plight was sympathetic, I found it hard to warm to Caroline’s character. She seemed weak and her intense guilt made her dislike herself. If someone doesn’t like themselves it is difficult for others to like them. I couldn’t believe she was so naive that she couldn’t see through her charming philanderer of a husband. Then, about half way through the book I began to understand her better, thus liking her more as the pages were turned. It was at this point that the novel gained momentum and didn’t let up. The ending revealed an unexpected twist that I didn’t see coming. I highly recommend this book to lovers of suspense novels.
Joy Fielding is a best-selling novelist who divides her time between Toronto, Ontario and Palm Beach, Florida. Born in Toronto, Ontario, she graduated from the University of Toronto in 1966, with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. As Joy Tepperman, she had a brief acting career, appearing in the film Winter Kept Us Warm (1965) and in an episode of Gunsmoke. She later changed her last name to Fielding (after Henry Fielding) and began writing novels. She is married to a successful attorney and has two daughters.