Thursday, November 3, 2011

Book Review: The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

The End of Everything
By Megan Abbott

(Blogger Note: This review was published in the November, 2011 edition of LAMLight, the physician newsletter of the Lynchburg Academy of Medicine.)

This is a “missing girl” novel that packs a punch.  There are countless excellent books with this theme, so what makes this one special?  Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was told from the point of view of the deceased victim.  Jodie Picoult’s House Rules had a main character who was autistic.  Stewart O’Nan’s Songs for the Missing focused on the tsunami effect that a child’s disappearance has on the victim’s family and community.  So what sets The End of Everything apart from a crowded field of books with basically the same premise?
The End of Everything is set in the mid-1980s in an unnamed but stereotypical Midwest town.  The missing girl in Megan Abbott’s novel is Evie Verver, a typically energetic thirteen year old who is just beginning to exit the awkwardness of middle school and enter into the vague mysteries of high school.  The story is told by Lizzie Hood, Evie’s best friend and next door neighbor.  They are avid field hockey players who are in awe of Evie’s older sister Dusty, the star of the high school team who has boys following her around like puppy dogs and also is the apple of her Dad’s eyes.  Mr. Verver is a dapper middle aged man who wallows in “what could have beens.”  He sits in his basement with the girls drinking beer and playing old vinyl phonograph records from his youth.  Mrs. Verver is largely absent, prone to bouts of melancholy and staying mostly in her bedroom. 
One afternoon after practice Lizzie’s Mom picks her up from school to shop at the mall for an eighth grade graduation dress.  This leaves Evie alone at the field to walk home by herself.  She does not come home and the Ververs contact the police.  There are no clues regarding Evie’s disappearance and the family and community enter a state of panic.  Mr. Verver in particular turns into a chain-smoking ball of nerves.  Lizzie becomes the focus of the police investigation as she slowly recalls details of the day of Evie’s disappearance and then fragments of odd conversations over the previous weeks.  The key piece of evidence is Lizzie’s report of a black car circling the school the day of Evie’s disappearance.  She identifies the car from photographs and the investigation then shifts to a local insurance agent whose office is on the route the girls usually take when they walk to school.  This man is the same age as Mr. Verver, is married and has a son who attends the same high school as Dusty (and owns the black car identified by Lizzie.)  There is evidence (again supplied by Lizzie) that Mr. Shaw, the insurance agent, was stalking Evie (or was it Dusty?) before he snatched her.  Lizzie gains celebrity status amongst her peers as everyone begs her for more details.  An odd codependent relationship develops between Lizzie and Evie’s father.
Questions mount up faster than answers.  Where are Mr. Shaw and his black sedan?  Is Evie alive or dead?   What’s up with Mr. Verver?  Is he just a cool Dad or is he as guilty as Mr. Shaw?  Underlying this whole story is a sexual tension that is undeniable and understated.  Nothing is ever explicitly revealed, but the implications are that there was a lot of weirdness behind the Verver’s closed doors.   Was Evie an innocent victim or did she conveniently use Mr. Shaw as an escape from something worse?  Does Lizzie know more than she is telling, letting some information conveniently slip out but hiding the most damaging?
The resolution of this story is incomplete.  The author leaves a lot of unanswered questions.  There is a tidy climax to the story, however, which actually opens even more questions. 
This is an extremely well-written book.  It takes a worn out theme and spins new life into it.  The characters are superbly developed, mainly by the striking descriptions of their actions:
            “There’s a throb in my chest when I see him.   Mr. Verver is back and he is pulling the nozzle trigger on the garden hose, spraying the dry thatch of flowers, the frail brown shrubs.  There’s a beer bottle by his feet, foamed to the top, and two more empty ones, shuddering slightly on the windowsill next to a small speaker gushing restless tales of lost love and the loneliness of the road.”
              The novel evokes Middle America in a time when there was still innocence on the surface, when lurid details weren’t exploited for headlines and certain things were held closely secret by families.  This book has a certain “creepiness” to it that rivals the best of horror writers such as Stephen King.  In the style of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, what isn’t shown or told is much more disturbing than what is. 
This is an outstanding novel which stands as an equal to the aforementioned novels.  It is fast paced and very entertaining.  It is hard to put down.  I recommend it highly.  The End of Everything is available in hardcover from Little Brown and Company and in e-book formats. 

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