Book Review: Where I Left Her

Spoilers ahead!

My copy of the book.

I slipped in another book with only hours left in the year 2021 and incidentally, following up on 2017’s Edgar and Lucy, I read another child missing story published this year, Amber Garza’s Where I Left Her.

Since I just finished the former and started the latter last night and then finished it this morning, at 295 pages, Garza’s book is much breezier than Lodato’s and not as weighty. That is, Garza’s breeziness doesn’t linger around enough to touch on some of the deeper ruminations that Lodato did, which is fine! It’s a different kind of rumination, more about a mother and a daughter and how that dynamic evolves (and perhaps one could say, devolves) over time.

At first, I was thinking of saying that Garza’s writing wasn’t as strong as Lodato’s (and I’m only comparing them because I read them quite literally back-to-back and they’re both child missing stories) because as I noted in my review, Lodato’s was so poetic and lyrical. But then I thought, Garza’s book kept me reading, page-after-page, reading more than I expected to last night after having just finished another book when I normally need a breather. Then I breathlessly finished it this morning.

If a book keeps my interest with its story and characters and more than that, keeps me excitedly turning the pages, isn’t that good writing, by definition? I think so and thus, my initial reaction isn’t fair. Garza kept me reading and kept me interested and as such, she made me care. That’s the main goal of any author, I think.

The story involves Whitney, a single-mother with a gig as a photographer, who is raising a 16-year-old teenager, Amelia, and they are having a classic butting-of-the-heads. Whitney is dealing with the fact that as Amelia has gotten older, she’s exerted more of her independence and that’s brushing up against Whitney’s over-protectiveness.

Of course, we learn through flashbacks what is obvious to any parent: That desire and thirst for independence isn’t something that suddenly blossoms with hormones when one becomes a teenager; it’s there early on, too, but it seems more … manageable then, I suppose? Because then they’re just throwing a fit, as Amelia does, about wanting a red jacket instead of a white jacket, MOM. But as a teenager, you’re talking about things that teeter on adulthood, like alcohol, drugs and sex, all brewing under the sweltering heat of peer pressure. That ups the consequence potential and the tension between the desire to protect and the desire to loosen the leash.

Amelia also seems to be changing, not just toward her mother in terms of not wanting to hang out as much, but also changing friend groups and skipping school. In fact, she has a new friend now, Lauren. The start of the book is Whitney dropping Amelia off (much to Amelia’s embarrassment) at Lauren’s house.

The problem is, when Whitney goes to retrieve Amelia the next day, an old couple answers the door and Amelia is nowhere to be found (nor is Lauren). Amelia isn’t answering her phone and the Find Your Friends app isn’t showing Amelia’s location.

That’s another thing I like about this book, which Garza said she wrote amid the pandemic in 2020 (sheesh, bravo to her for that feat!), is that it feels distinctly modern. One of my favorite genres of fiction (whatever one calls it) is when something awful happens to real people, the proverbial crap hitting the fan moment for people that seem like they’d exist in the real world. It’s why I quickly became a Harlan Coben fan, for example. And here with Garza’s character and story, it feels ripped right out of 2021.

Another “point,” if you will, in favor of Garza’s writing is that a seasoned mystery reader like me kept guessing what the mystery reveal would be and I kept guessing wrong! First, I thought Jay, who is Whitney’s new boyfriend (she’s divorced from her husband, who lives in Amsterdam) was the culprit. That he had preyed upon, and lured in, Amelia and only used Whitney to do as much.

Nope. To be sure, Jay’s a sleezeball because he’s cheating on his wife, which Whitney didn’t know about, but he had nothing to do with Amelia’s disappearance.

Then, my cynical self was getting skeptical of Natalie, who is Whitney’s best friend (and boss, incidentally) because she seemed too nice, ha. Like, she was over at the house immediately and spent more than 24 hours with Whitney helping her to track down her daughter.

Nope, nothing amiss with Natalie. She is just that nice.

Okay, we begin getting passages in the book that don’t have a subheading and seemed from the perspective of Lauren talking about Amelia because the person she was talking about was referred to as Millie, which seems like an obvious nickname for Amelia.

Nope again! Turns out, that was from the perspective of a younger Whitney and her best friend Millie (who had a completely different name actually) and how their friendship had imploded over an abusive boyfriend of Millie’s, Mitch.

Fine. We then learn that Lauren thinks her and Amelia are sisters and that Whitney stole Amelia from Millie. Whoa. Now that’s huge, but my thought was that it was Millie’s idea in order to give Amelia a better life. That’s how Whitney would go on to tell it.

That as it happened, her and Millie were in the hospital at the same time giving birth to their children. But Whitney’s baby died, presumably of sudden infant death syndrome. That’s when Millie came up with the idea to swap babies to give Amelia a better shot at life and then Millie went on to commit suicide. And Lauren, the older daughter of Millie, wound up in foster care, which is why she resents Whitney so much (Mitch went to prison).

Darn, wrong again! But this time, my wrongness came from a place of hoping Whitney was a genuine person. I mean, she’s a little crazy. The perspectives throughout of her friendship with Millie (which is narrated by herself, no less) make her seem a little obsessed with Millie, if earnest about trying to help her with the abusive Mitch.

And it’s absolutely awful to not tell your freakin’ husband that your guys’ baby died and that you SWAPPED BABIES. Awful still to obviously never tell Amelia the truth.

But I’m like, okay, I can put that aside because I want Whitney to be a good person and her and Amelia to get their relationship back on track. Particularly because once Whitney catches up with Whitney and Lauren at the cemetery where they’re visiting the grave of their actual mother, Millie, we see that Amelia does love her mother, of course, and that she’s scared and confused. So, if Whitney is a bad person, that only makes me feel even worse for Amelia’s plight.

Furthermore, we get this lovely little image, going back to the red jacket, that “red jacket” became their inside joke “safe word” for whenever Amelia wanted her mom to come to her rescue and get her out of a bad situation. Amelia evokes that now by secretly texting the phrase to her mother. Lauren thinks Amelia is going to go on with their plan to have a “sisters’ road trip” but Amelia is already planning on ditching Lauren.

Lauren meanwhile not only wants the trip, but is holding steadfast to the idea of one day turning Whitney into the police for stealing Amelia.

Little does Lauren know she doesn’t know the whole truth and neither did it! We learn at the end that Whitney’s story she told the girls was BS. Her baby really did die of SIDS, but then she went to Millie, killed her and swapped the babies. Everyone thought Millie killed herself because of her prior drug issues and that her baby also died of SIDS.

Awful. Awful. Awful.

Whitney is the evil person and Lauren was right all along! What a dang psycho and I have to give much credit to Garza for keeping me guessing (wrongly!) and abruptly pulling the wool that was over my eyes regarding Whitney away to reveal who she really is in the book.

Heck of an ending. That said, I think there’s enough pieces left that perhaps Lauren could still get the upper-hand. After all, she said she had an extra copy of her mother’s diary. Granted, that diary is from high school and it’s not clear there’s any evidence of the baby swap or Whitney drugging and killing Millie, but it’s enough of a thread for her to continue to pull upon. After all, Whitney thought its existence alarming enough to burn the physical copy Lauren gave her.

Anyhow, if you’re looking for a classic “beach read” in the winter, I highly recommend Garza’s book here. Obviously, it’s kinda weird to recommend it at this point because I presume if you’re reading a review with spoilers, then you’ve already read the book. In which case, I’m curious if you were also guessing wrongly throughout and I’m just a chump, ha.

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