Mitchard (Two If by Sea, 2016) seizes upon a timely and sensitive topic in her latest outing. Thea Demetriou's 21-year-old son, Stefan, has just been released from prison after being sentenced as a minor for the narcotic-spiked murder of his high-school sweetheart, a crime he cannot remember committing. All Thea wants is for Stefan to be able to move on with his life, but their family is pursued by a menacing figure in a hoodie and sunglasses, and Thea keeps receiving texts from a young woman named Esme. Stefan's first attempt at employment at his uncle's lumberyard devolves into violence, prompting him to turn his efforts to creating the Healing Project, which helps perpetrators try to find ways to make amends to their victims. Readers seeking a truly conflicted, thought-provoking exploration of penance and attempts at redemption might have to look elsewhere. Mitchard devotes more time to the mystery of Esme and Thea's over-protectiveness of her son than she does to exploring guilt and punishment, but this is a compassionate tale with a gripping, ripped-from-the-headlines premise.HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Best-selling Mitchard takes on a hot button subject and offers just the sort of plot twist fans of popular and crime fiction crave.
The disappointing latest from Mitchard (The Deep End of the Ocean) begins with an irresistible dilemma and morphs into a long-winded, unconvincing melodrama. The setup: comfortable middle-class Wisconsin English professor Thea Demetriou must face her beloved 20-year-old son Stefan, who has just spent two years and change in prison for killing his girlfriend Belinda McCormack in a drug-induced frenzy. Formerly, Thea was friends with 4 Belinda's mother, Jill, who now dedicates her time to leading protests outside Thea's house over Stefan's lax punishment. Mitchard sensitively details Stefan's painful reintroduction to society, the horrified response of the liberal community to Stefan's attempts at rehabilitation, and Thea's attempts to reconcile her love for her son with his crime. But Mitchard swerves disarmingly from psychological study to would-be thriller, as Thea receives mysterious calls from a young woman who says she knows what actually happened on the day of the killing, and starts to notice the presence of an unsettling hooded figure. Readers will likely figure out what's going on long before Thea does, and the plot undercuts any emotional or ethical tension the book might have had. Those hoping for an exploration of the conflict between maternal love and moral responsibility will be frustrated. Agent: Jeff Kleinman, Folio Literary Management. (Jan.)
Best-seller Mitchard (The Deep End of the Ocean, the inaugural pick for Oprah's book club) sets the tone for her suspenseful new novel with its opening line: "I was picking my son up at the prison gates when I spotted the mother of the girl he had murdered." Thea tells the story, past and present, of her son Stefan and how he killed his beloved girlfriend Belinda. Belinda's mother, Jill, had been a close friend of Thea's, until the murder shattered multiple lives. As Stefan and Thea try to move forward, they're hassled by violent protestors and viciously stalked. The novel takes on a tinge of mystery when Thea starts getting strange phone calls from a young woman who "knows everything" about the night of the murder and says to tell Stefan "I'm sorry." Who is this caller, and what does she know? And what happened that awful night? Mitchard's emotional yet precise writing sets readers firmly in the story, amid the Wisconsin weather and the characters, from Thea's calm football coach husband to her not- so-sympathetic colleagues at the university where she teaches. VERDICT An engaging journey through redemption, forgiveness, and a mother's devotion.--Beth Gibbs, Davidson, NC
The end of her son's prison sentence is the beginning of a new nightmare for the mother of a murderer. "Before Belinda died, not much in my life had prepared me for anything except moderate good fortune." A college professor married to a popular football coach with a large network of loving family and friends, Thea Demetriou was living a good life until her luck ran out in a dramatic way three years ago, when her 17-year-old son, Stefan, a boy who had barely swatted a fly, murdered his longtime girlfriend, Belinda, in a drug-induced episode of psychosis. He remembers nothing about it, but he was the only one present, and his fingerprints were on the murder weapon. The scene Stefan comes home to is far from welcoming--picketers from an activist group founded by Belinda's mother, Jill, have already been gathering outside their house regularly to protest his release, and the harassment of the family by individuals and the media now escalates to the point that Thea is forced to take a sabbatical from her job. (Her academic focus is obsessed women in fiction, a detail with oddly unexplored potential.) If Stefan was just a regular guy before he went to prison, his tortuous experiences have made him into a near saint; he now conceives and undertakes a major project of good works in an attempt to give his ruined life meaning. Meanwhile, Thea begins receiving calls from someone who claims to have more information about the murder, but this plotline unfolds so slowly that it leaks rather than increases tension. Mitchard is an old pro at domestic fiction--the characters, the dialogue, the insights are all as strong as you'd expect--but most readers will figure out who the stalker is a hundred pages before Thea does. And as heavily overdetermined as it is, the final reveal could have been better set up. An emotionally intense drama of guilt, forgiveness, and motherhood marred by an unfortunate pacing problem. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.