The One I Left Behind
Jennifer McMahon, 2013
The summer of 1985 changes Reggie’s life. An awkward thirteen-year-old, she finds herself mixed up with the school outcasts. That same summer, a serial killer called Neptune begins kidnapping women. He leaves their severed hands on the police department steps and, five days later, displays their bodies around town.
Just when Reggie needs her mother, Vera, the most, Vera’s hand is found on the steps. But after five days, there’s no body and Neptune disappears.
Now, twenty-five years later, Reggie is a successful architect who has left her hometown and the horrific memories of that summer behind. But when she gets a call revealing that her mother has been found alive, Reggie must confront the ghosts of her past and find Neptune before he kills again. (From the publisher.)
• Where—suburban, Connecticut, USA
• Education—B.A., Goddard College; M.F.A., Vermont College
• Currently—Montpelier, Vermont
In her words
I was born in 1968 and grew up in my grandmother’s house in suburban Connecticut, where I was convinced a ghost named Virgil lived in the attic. I wrote my first short story in third grade.
I graduated with a BA from Goddard College in 1991 and then studied poetry for a year in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. A poem turned into a story, which turned into a novel, and I decided to take some time to think about whether I wanted to write poetry or fiction.
After bouncing around the country, I wound up back in Vermont, living in a cabin with no electricity, running water, or phone with my partner, Drea, while we built our own house. Over the years, I have been a house painter, farm worker, paste-up artist, Easter Bunny, pizza delivery person, homeless shelter staff member, and counselor for adults and kids with mental illness—I quit my last real job in 2000 to work on writing full time.
In 2004, I gave birth to our daughter, Zella. These days, we're living in an old Victorian in Montpelier, Vermont. Some neighbors think it looks like the Addams family house, which brings me immense pleasure. (From the author's website.)
McMahon expertly ratchets up the suspense, but it’s her full-blooded characters that make this thriller stand out from the serial-killer pack.
Totally engrossing... Hard to put down... A quick read that is highly entertaining.
Oklahoma City Oklahoman
A mesmerizing psychological thriller.... McMahon fills The One I Left Behind with unpredictable twists and turns as she explores that great mystery of the human heart.
South Florida Sun Sentinel
(Starred review.) At the start of this haunting work of literary suspense from bestseller McMahon (Don’t Breathe a Word), Vermont architect Reggie Dufrane receives a startling phone call—her idolized mother, Vera, who was snatched by the notorious serial killer known as Neptune when Reggie was 13, has been found alive. Flashback 25 years to 1985 Brighton Falls, Conn. Even before her mother’s severed right hand, like those of Neptune’s other female victims, shows up on the police station steps, followed by lurid revelations about Vera’s life, the fatherless teen has been struggling as a vulnerable outsider, far too enmeshed with fellow outcasts Charlie, the detective’s son on whom she has an unrequited crush, and Tara, the daring goth. Now, for the first time in decades, mother and daughter return to Brighton Falls, where they discover, to their peril, that Neptune may be back. Grippingly plotted, this intricate, character-driven story seamlessly shifts time as McMahon explores such favorite themes as dark familial secrets, flawed relationships, and the potentially destructive power of sex, all anchored in a vividly evoked suburban Connecticut landscape. You won’t soon forget Reggie, fierce yet fragile, but likely to stick with you even longer is the central conundrum of the extent to which our pasts enslave us and how much we can set ourselves free.
(Starred review.) Although the title seems irrelevant to the plot, McMahon scores a solid touchdown in this creepy but engrossing thriller. Reggie returns to her hometown of Brighton Falls when her aunt Lorraine calls to tell her that Reggie's mom is in the hospital after spending a couple of years in a homeless shelter. Both Reggie and her mother's sister are astounded that Vera has surfaced since they, along with the police and the entire town, assumed Vera died years ago after being kidnapped by a serial killer known only as Neptune.... If McMahon has one sin where this novel is concerned, it's that she allows the adult Reggie to occasionally behave like the teenager in one of those horror flicks who ventures down into the basement because she heard a noise. Readers will find themselves unable to turn the pages fast enough in this perfectly penned thriller.
1. As an adult, Reggie has done everything she can to put the past behind her, and has told almost no one about what happened to her mother. How did the events of that summer shape the woman she becomes? Do you think we can choose how tragedy shapes us? Is it ever possible to truly put the past behind us?
2. Reggie's mother, Vera, is a very complicated character and Reggie spends much of the book (in both the 1985 sections and those set in the present) trying to understand her. What are Vera's motivations for all the lies she tells? Are there times when it's okay for a parent to fabricate a story? Do you think Vera's stories affected the way Reggie relates to others?
3. We meet most of the characters in 1985 and then again in 2010. How have they changed? In what ways are they the same? Do you think you carry the same person inside you that you did when you were 13? If you could go back and give your thirteen-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
4. Toward the beginning of the book, Reggie tells Len that people are not trees and are not meant to put down roots; that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers and life is about movement. How does this change by the end of the book? How do you think these changes will affect Reggie's life and work?
5. One of the things at the heart of The One I Left Behind is the friendship between Reggie and Tara. They are both outsiders, but with very different personalities and secrets. At one point, Tara tells Reggie, "You're just like me. I've known it all along." Is Tara right? In what ways are they alike? What do you think draws them to each other? Does anything positive come of their friendship?
6. One of the secrets of the summer of 1985 is what really happened to Sid. How did this incident and the way each character dealt with it shape Reggie over the years? What do you think of Stu Berr's part in the kids' silence?
7. There are a lot of physical scars in the book—Reggie's ear and Vera's hand; the scars Reggie and Tara share. Why do you think the author chose to include these scars? What do they symbolize to you?
8. Reggie is an award-winning architect known for blurring lines and merging unlikely ideas and objects. How do the skills that have brought her success in her career come into play when she finds herself tracking down Neptune?
9. Reggie has a strained relationship with her aunt Lorraine. Do you sympathize with Lorraine at all? Is she responsible for what happens to Vera? Do your feelings about Lorraine change throughout the book?
10. Len's astrology chart shows that Reggie has Neptune in the 12th house. Reggie imagines herself as having a little piece of the killer inside her; when she finds herself in dire straits she draws upon this idea to give her strength. Do you think that good can come from accessing the darker, more hidden parts of ourselves?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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