Ellie Enderlin only lives half a life - on the surface she is a normal successful woman, living and working in San Francisco for an international coffee buyer and getting to travel to different destinations to source different coffee for her job.
However, Ellie is still haunted by events in 1989 where her older sister Lila was brutally murdered. Lila herself was an incredibly smart young woman, on the verge of some mathematical breakthrough. Lila's murder is never really solved although fingers are pointed. As the years pass, Ellie finds it difficult to develop relationships with anyone and loses the one person that she has gotten closer to since her sisters death due to how detached she becomes when it comes to her emotions. It all boils down to the events and weeks after her sisters death where she opens up and confides in her English professor, Andrew Thorpe.
Andrews interest in Ellies feelings and Lila's death are at first a comfort to Ellie who doesn't want to burden her grieving parents with her own pain. However, Andrew has other reasons for his interest in Elllie, her feelings and Lila's death - he completely betrays Ellie and writes a best-selling book about the murder which exposes Ellie and her family to the world. Along with this, Andrew cleverly and convincingly points the finger at one man in particular as the murderer and Ellie has spent her life believing that this man killed her sister. However, when Ellie comes face to face with the man in question years later, she has her doubts and knows she must uncover the truth before she moves on.
After reading the blurb on this book, I thought that there maybe more of a gruesome crime/murder mystery element to this book but actually I'd class it as a more literary book. The story is told from Ellie's point of view, and her thoughts and feelings are raw and honest throughout making it an emotional and intelligent read. We are told of the events that lead up to Lila's murder and then the reader is taken to the present day when Ellie comes face to face with Peter McConnell, Lila's fellow Stanford graduate, a married man who was having an affair with Lila right up to her death. Peter McConnell's life has been ruined by the book written by Andrew Thorpe naming him as the killer, and although there was never enough evidence to convict, Peter finds himself alone in South America having lost his wife and child with no chance of contact from them again.
It is quite clear at this point that this story balances on finding the real killer, and any intelligent reader will realise that Peter McConnell is not the man. The story moves on at a steady pace from this point on and as a reader I found myself becoming more involved with the interesting characters in this book.
Of course, Ellie is the main point of interest. She comes across as intelligent lonely brave and scared all at once, and I found her account of her sisters death touching and real. Although her relationship with her sister had its secrets, I loved the subtle ways in which the author depicted Ellie trying to be closer to her sister and understand her "world" more once she had died. Ellie is given Lila's notebook which is mainly filled with maths formulae and often Ellie will quote various things and its dropped into the story that Ellie has read some of the maths books that Lila read whilst studying.
What is most interesting about Ellie is her self-discovery during the book. She readily acknowledges that Andrew Thorpe's version of events has affected how she lives her life many years on. Not only does Andrew take it upon himself to point out a killer without any real evidence (but yet everyone including Ellies family believe he must be due to Andrews solid belief), but he also takes it upon himself to sum up Ellie and Lila's personality and characteristics.
As a former student of Andrews, Ellie feels betrayed that Andrew should change facts about her relationship with Lila to suit his own needs. She often refers to past lectures given by Andrew and how you must make a story interesting. I think one of the reasons that Ellie so fastidiously follows Lila's maths progress and reading was to try and prove Andrew wrong as he had said they were as different as night and day. To sum up, Ellie has been living her life in the way in which Andrew had depicted it in the book; defeated, believing that a particular man committed the murder but feeling cheated and unable to move on as this man is still free.
I have yet to say anything about Andrew, but I would imagine It would be difficult to find anything particularly likeable about him just from what I have written about him and his actions in this book so far. Again, I loved the subtlety the author has in making the reader almost despise but at the same time feel sorry for this man without actually spelling it out. Whilst Ellie is retelling the way I which she opens up to Andrew about her and Lila, the reader already knows that he is going to write an expose on their life and her death so I already disliked him. However, Ellie returns to see him in the present day when she decides to re-investigate the murder and find the true killer. His desperation and sad little life make it almost impossible for me as a reader not to feel sorry for this pathetic little man - he spends his days signing books and attending meets with "fans" and living up to the fact that despite writing other books after this, it will never live up to the success of the first. There is one scene where Ellie visits Andrew at his home, and the description she gives of his home and the way he lives just makes him seem pathetic. Added to that, his over-eagerness to please Ellie and to win dates with her by suggesting other possible suspects in the murder of her sister just gives up total desperation. There are many things that make him the perfect character to despise, and I couldn't wait to see whether he would get his comeuppance at the end.
Storytelling within Storytelling...
Aside from great characters and an interesting story, I felt that this author managed to weave some real intelligent thought into a book that essentially is about a murdered woman and finding the killer. This came in the form of the authors insights into storytelling itself. Throughout the book, Ellie often remembers things that Andrew had told the class whilst teaching; about making the book interesting and altering facts to make them more appealing. Andrew adds to his wonderful insights without any sense of guilt that he is dealing with a real story and murder and speaking to the dead girls sister when she meets with him again. "Characters" (or in Ellie's understanding REAL people) crop up once she starts to investigate, and Ellie asks Andrew why they didn't get a mention in the book - Andrews reply is that they were not interesting enough to get a mention and he felt their stories didn't lead to anything exciting. Without revealing the end, I was pleased that Ellie managed to turn this around on Andrew. There are many sides to a story, and if you look hard enough, each character and story can be just as interesting as the most obvious one that stares you in the face.