Kim Hooper’s debut People Who Knew Me is the story of a woman who in the aftermath of September 11, decides to disappear and make a new life for herself far away from her husband and everyone who knew her.
Meet Emily Morris. Everyone who knew her believes she was one of the thousands of lives lost when the planes struck the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. But Emily is alive and well in California, living now as Connie Prynne, and she has managed to put the events that drove her to fake her death somewhat behind her.
Hooper weaves Emily’s story from a first person POV, making the narrative much more heartfelt, slowly unfolding the truth of her story. Emily marries the man she fell in love with at first sight, a man who she preferred over another she was to see that same night. We know that Emily marries this man, Drew and starts a life with him.
But with the happiness come disappointments, disagreements, and money troubles. Emily becomes tired of Drew’s failure as a restaurant entrepreneur and his apparent lack of drive. Adding to their already tense marriage, Drew’s mother becomes ill and he moves in with her after Emily refuses to sacrifice her life and her dreams to become a caregiver for her mother-in-law.
While this may sound selfish, and it is, Emily has the reasonable excuse of youth. Hooper cleverly entices us to feel compassion for a young woman in love whose husband no longer has her and their marriage first in his list of priorities.
It isn’t a surprise then when Emily finds herself in love with another man. The man she was supposed to go out the night she met Drew, a man who is promising to give her the life she thought she would have with her husband. In a somewhat expected twist, Emily realizes she is pregnant with this man’s baby and she knows now that she must tell Drew the truth about the affair and make the life she so desperately wants with the father of her child.
However, destiny has other plans, albeit cruel ones. The morning she is set to tell Drew everything after spending the night at her lover’s apartment, she wakes up to the tragedy unfolding at the World Trade Center. She knows that the man she loves is in one of the buildings and she also knows in her heart that he didn’t make it out. After sheltering herself in his apartment for days in shock, she knows what she must do. She can’t go back to her husband, she can’t go back to her life.
Everyone believes that she was in the towers that morning because she also worked there, for the same company as her lover. Her husband has posted her picture beside thousands of other faces of loved ones who are missing. An idea starts to form in Emily’s mind. She can disappear, leave, and start over somewhere new with her child and never look back.
But life works in mysterious ways, reminding us that we can’t run forever from the past. After getting the news from her doctor that she has an aggressive form of breast cancer, Emily (or Connie as she now calls herself) understands that she must put right what she did wrong, if not for her, for her fourteen year old daughter who has no one else to watch over her if Emily doesn’t make it.
Hooper presents several dilemmas to contend with in this story. Not only Emily’s infidelity but the fact that she was able to walk away from her husband and her own mother, leaving them to deal with the pain of believing her dead. She has also lied to her own daughter, never telling her who she really is and why she needed to disappear. It’s very likely that if Emily had not gotten sick, she would have continued to deceive everyone until the day she died.
Hooper doesn’t present Emily as a character to be liked, but rather as someone who made a choice thinking that it was the right one amid the pain and heartbreak of that terrible day. The author poses difficult questions. If we had the chance to leave everything behind, could we do it? What if we could leave behind money problems, a bad marriage, and a life we despise? Was Emily selfish and cruel or was she carving a new opportunity for her and her child with no baggage, no past, and no heartache? A chance to start over.
Kim Hooper’s People Who Knew Me is not a breezy feel-good summer reading novel. The subject matter is harsh and what Emily did will certainly label her as a hateful character in the eyes of many readers. But it is reasonable to think that Hooper doesn’t intend us to feel sorry for Emily or to even feel any kind of empathy with her or her decision, and is not remotely interested in giving her an undeserved redemption. In fact, the open ending is a serious problem here because it presents no clear resolution for anyone involved, leaving us with more questions than answers and too many loose ends in the plot.
But like any novel of value, People Who Knew Me is extremely thought-provoking. We ponder over Emily’s questionable choices and their lasting consequences long after turning the last page. Yes some of us might hate her, some of us may find a smidgen of sympathy for her, but her story surely leaves us all with a difficult question: “What would you have done?”
Author’s note: This review was based on an advanced reader’s copy provided by Netgalley and the publisher.