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Book Review: ‘After Her’ by Joyce Maynard

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Joyce Maynard After HerVeteran novelist Joyce Maynard has returned with a coming of age story woven into a serial killer investigation that is both evocative and captivating.

Rachel and Patty, children of divorce, are growing up unsupervised in northern California in the 1970s. Their father, the head of Marin County homicide, is the handsome ladies man Anthony Torricelli. He leaves when the girls were still small, devastating their mother, who proceeds to hole up in her bedroom, leaving the girls to fend for and entertain themselves.

Their home backs up to Mount Tamalpais, and there the girls roam. They play in an abandoned car they found and occasionally see naked hippies running around. Then, in 1979, the summer Rachel is 13, a serial killer finds his way to the mountain and starts killing young women.

Rachel is the narrator of the tale, which goes into great depth regarding Patty’s and her life up to and through the time of the killings. Rachel enters adolescence with her father being in charge of the investigation, which makes her popular for a time. She loves to make up stories and wants to be a writer, and she believes she has visions, including of the killer.

Her father being in charge of the investigation stokes Rachel’s imagination, but it wears heavily on him. Rachel and Patty grow up haunted by the events on the mountain that year, Rachel in particular. Her life and destiny are shaped by the experience, which propels the narrative to its final, neat conclusion.

Maynard evokes the 70s with rich detail and vividly chronicles what it is like to be a 13-year-old girl, with one foot in the world of childhood fantasies and the other in adulthood. She also captures the close relationship between two sisters left to rely on each other and their own devices. The story, which builds in suspense, doesn’t end where it seems it might, but continues to chronicle Rachel later in life and moves on to a denouement that still holds surprises.

In the afterword, Maynard writes about her inspiration for the story: two sisters who came to her writing class who actually lived through the book’s scenario: being daughters of the detective in charge of the investigation of a serial killer on Mount Tamalpais. She also says she wanted to explore the relationship of the two sisters, which explains the richness of detail in the first half of the book.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.