by Sherry Evans, Portsmouth Public Library
Emily Arsenault uses a curious construct in Miss Me When I’m Gone to convey events that happened in the past, known as flashbacks. Were this television, the screen might fade out or get fuzzy, the character looks ill, pained or passes out and then a sequence of events begin that you know happened in the past. Sometimes the flashback remains blurred around the edges or the voices are echoes. Ah, television. But in books when the back story is essential to the story taking place today, it can all get cumbersome to the reader to be constantly wondering, ‘is this happening now or is this a flashback?’
Arsenault solves the back story dilemma by having events and characters delineated by the use of different type fonts and divided by chapters. The various narrators alternate among the 60 short chapters. The chapters are also numbered and/or titled using song titles, journal entries or newspaper article headings.
Who are the characters? Jaime, our main narrator, married, 30ish and 7 months pregnant with her first baby, a boy, finds out that her best friend from college, Gretchen, fell on the steps of the Willingham Library after a reading and died. Jaime is devastated and wishes she had taken her friend’s last meandering, reflective email more seriously; wishes she had kept better contact with her over the years. Gretchen is the famous author of Tammyland, a memoir/biography of Tammy Wynette. At the time of her death she was working on her second book. Jaime is asked by Gretchen’s mother to be the ‘literary executor’ and gives all of the notes, recordings and computer files to her. Gretchen’s mother leaves the time frame open. Jaime, however not content to wait and as a way to assuage her grief, begins immediately to organize it all. It soon becomes clear that Gretchen’s death was probably not an accident.
This is a literary mystery. The written word is essential to solving it. It is through recordings, newspaper articles, emails, diaries, and first person accounts that the action moves forward, revealing clues along the way. Gretchen, as the content of her book Tammyland might suggest, is a long-time, avid country music fan. Tammyland is about not only Tammy Wynette but many female voices, Dolly Parton, June Carter Cash, Loretta Lynn and others and what their music and lyrics reveal of their lives. The chapters attributed to Gretchen are either essays from Tammyland or notes for the second book.
Although Jaime lives in Massachusetts (as does Arsenault) most of the action takes place in the fictional, small town of Emerson, New Hampshire where Gretchen’s mother, Shelly grew up. One suspect teaches chemistry at the University of New Hampshire (Durham). There are references to Laconia, NH and Durham Road. The library where Gretchen fell is in fictional Willingham, NH. It is intriguing to guess which towns Arsenault might be using for her settings.
Jaime discovers that Gretchen was trying to find out who killed of Shelly over 20 years ago. Gretchen also wants to find her father. She was raised by Shelly’s sister, Linda and her husband, but always knew that Shelly was her biological mother. But Shelly would never reveal who the father was…to anyone. Gretchen interviewed all of Shelly’s childhood friends, ex-boyfriends, her boss, the paperboy, her family and her Doctor. The characters are delightful and nuanced, all with secrets either about Shelly or Gretchen and Jaime is not convinced of the truth of any of their answers. And neither was Gretchen.
What keeps the story rolling and interesting, is that due to the anticipated birth of Jamie’s baby and her full-time job, she has a limited amount of time to devote to the mystery. She becomes obsessed by it. As the story progresses we know that Jaime is coming closer to discovering the murderer (s) of both Shelly and Gretchen. Is Jamie putting herself and the baby in danger? Is her husband right to be alarmed that she continues to investigate knowing she may be in danger? Shelly’s alcoholic and abusive boyfriend was acquitted of her murder but did he kill her?
From Tammyland, “Whatever fame Tammy [Wynette] gained or lost, however tragically her life ended, it’s clear here that she was loved, and still is. Maybe that’s all that any of us can ask for after we’ve gone – whatever we’ve accomplished, wherever we’ve failed, whether we’ve achieved success or fame – that there are a few people left behind who wish to honor us in strange and humble ways.”
Miss Me When I’m Gone is Arsenault’s third book. Her first one, Broken Teaglass, was named a New York Times Notable Mystery and takes place at the fictional Samuelson Dictionary Company in Massachusetts. Two delightful young lexicographers solve a mystery hidden in the ancient definition files. Her second book, In Search of Rose the Notes, is also a literary mystery involving childhood friends. In all three of her books, Arsenault employs the use of first person accounts. Each book stands alone and they do not need to be read in order.
Hopefully, Arsenault is hard at work on her fourth book and it will be as equally penetrating and compelling as the first three.
Published in the Sunday Herald, Portsmouth, NH – November 9, 2012.