17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma. Dutton Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.
The Plot: Lauren’s beat up old van breaks down on a snowy day on the way to school, and because of that, she sees the missing poster she must have passed day after day after day. Abigail Sinclair. Seventeen, like Lauren. Missing from the summer camp where she was working. Something pulls Lauren out of the van, across the street, to the poster, to Abigail, to Abby’s story. It’s not until the van is fixed and Lauren is parking in the school parking lot that she looks at the rearview mirror and sees Abby. In the mirror. In her car. And suddenly Lauren knows more than any missing poster could ever tell her.
Lauren is being haunted by Abby, but she couldn’t tell you whether that means Abby is alive or dead. Lauren just knows Abby is missing, and there is more to her story than the poster tells, and that Abby wants answers and wants to be found.
And it turns out — it’s not just Abby who is haunting Lauren. Once Abby finds Lauren, once Lauren thinks, here is a girl who is just 17 and she is missing, she is gone, Lauren starts realizing there are many more girls who are 17 and go missing. She finds their missing posters and they, like Abby, began to show up, to haunt her, to appear in her dreams.
Why is it that so many seventeen year olds disappear? Why are they coming to Lauren? And what happened to Abby?
The Good: This is both one of my Favorite Books of 2013 and one of the most difficult books of 2013 to talk about. Because of that, I’m splitting this into two blog posts. This one will be spoiler-free; the one I post next week won’t be.
While this is a bit mystery (what happened to Abby? can Lauren figure it out?) and a bit ghost story (all the girls that Lauren sees, the dream she has about them) this isn’t quite as simple as either a mystery or a ghost story. It’s not tidy; it’s not that linear. “Girls go missing every day,” Lauren realizes, and later says “I want to give warning, I want to give chase. I’d do it, too, if I thought someone would believe me.”
But warning about what? Chasing what? About Abby, or any of the girls, or about what seems to happen when a girl turns seventeen that makes that year the riskiest year of them all?
“No matter how much [Abby’s] disappearance itched at me, tugging and not letting go, she wasn’t the only girl who wanted me to have her story. That’s the thing I’d soon discover. There were more. So many more. There were more lost girls out there than I’d ever imagined, and now they knew where to find me. Their whispers came from the shadows, the sound of so many voices more static than song.”
One of the first girls that appears to Lauren is Fiona Burke. Unlike Abby, or the other girls that will show themselves (Natalie, Shyann, Madison), Lauren knows Fiona. Or knew her. Fiona disappeared when she was 17; Lauren was only eight at the time. Fiona was her next door neighbor, and Lauren’s memories of Fiona mix with what she sees of the teenage girl who appears now to her. Does 17 mean something special to Lauren because of Fiona’s disappearance all those years ago? Or is it something special because that is how old Lauren is now? Is that what connects her to all these girls who went missing at 17? Is that what makes it easy for these ghosts to connect to her?
Whatever the reasons, they connection is made and Lauren knows she cannot tell anyone because who would believe her? It is quickly clear that she is the only one who sees this girls: not her mother, not her boyfriend, not her best friend, not any of the people at school. Just Lauren. Part of the reason I just loved 17 & Gone is how the author conveys Lauren’s point of view, her conviction, and why she does what she does in language that is almost foggy and never quite clear — much like how Lauren sees these girls. Here, for example, Lauren describing a setting: “The campground was buried in a valley of mosquitoes, pine treas, and poison oak, skirting the edge of a tepid lake.” It’s a language of belief rather than a language of questions; and so the reader believes what Lauren believes.
The resolution, the explanation of why Lauren sees these ghosts and why it matters that these are all girls who are 17 & gone, is shocking and at the same point makes perfect sense. Lauren’s story is told from a place of fragmentation and smoke; and then it clears. While Lauren says early on, “this was before I shattered into the particles and pieces I’m in now,” when was Lauren whole? 17 & Gone begins with Lauren shattered by what she sees, by these girls, by her knowledge that “girls go missing every day. They slip out bedroom windows and into strange cars. They leave good-bye notes or they don’t get a chance to tell anyone.” And this “go missing” is both a metaphor by the child who goes missing because the teen is becoming an adult and also solidly real: Abby is a real person who went missing, as was Fiona, as are the other girls who haunt Lauren. It’s not just about road from childhood to adulthood.
What else do I want to say in this post? I adored the portrait of Lauren’s mother. Forget everything else: Lauren’s mother is tattooed (I know!) and is working at a local university while pursuing her degree. Before she got this job she was a “dancer.” The two of them live in a carriage house on a bigger property. Mix that all together, and you have a very working class family in a richer neighborhood, with a woman making sacrifices for herself, her daughter, and their future. While this woman was well-drawn, she never became front and center. This was always Lauren’s story.
17 & Gone is a Favorite Book for 2013 — because Lauren’s voice is so strong and true. Because Nova Ren Suma’s writing is such that I quoted it again and again in my reading journal. Because while it’s not a linear mystery, it is a mystery — two actually, both what happened to Abby and why is it that these ghosts appear to Lauren? — and both mysteries are resolved, satisfactory and breathtakingly, in the pages of 17 & Gone. And because of how those mysteries are resolved, which warrant an entire post next week.
Other reviews — which, warning, are more spoilery than here. Leila Roy (bookshelves of doom) at Kirkus; Stacked; crossreferencing.