Book Review: Last Seen Leaving, Caleb Roehrig (2016)

October 3rd, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

What happened to January Beth McConville?

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for sexual harassment and rape. This review contains a spoiler in the form of Flynn’s secret – but it’s revealed so early on that it’s not much of a spoiler, imho.)

“I won’t be your safeguard or your excuse or your problem anymore,” she spat suddenly, venomously. “Either admit the truth, or find a new place to hide, because I’m done!”

Her feet pounded across the shadowy hayloft, then descended the ladder, and then crossed the barn underneath me. I heard the door creak open, and caught a glimpse of her glowing blond hair as she jogged from the barn back into the trees, heading toward the meadow.

It was the last time I saw her. Those were the last words she spoke to me.

One crisp October afternoon, fifteen-year-old Flynn Doherty returns home after school, only to find a cop car parked conspicuously outside. Flynn’s girlfriend January McConville has been missing for nearly a week, and Flynn may have been the last person to see her. As if that fact isn’t damning enough, Flynn claims not to have known about January’s disappearance: since her mother and stepfather forcibly transferred her to Dumas, a private school for rich kids located on the other side of town, they’d been growing apart. In fact, January broke up with him right before she vanished. (Strike three!)

The detectives want answers and, as much as Flynn wants to help them find January, the investigation threatens to expose a secret he’s been clinging to for years: Flynn is gay.

And so Flynn begins digging into January’s life – increasingly unhappy since her mother Tammy married Jonathan Walker, “a rich-as-hell state senator with national aspirations” – and her disappearance, hoping to find the real culprit (or, better still, January herself) and deflect attention from his own secret.

The rule of thumb may be that it’s “always the boyfriend,” but there are no shortage of suspects: Anston Walker, January’s shiny new stepbrother, a drug addict and pervert who sexually harassed January in the past; rageaholic Eddie Sward who, as Jonathan’s campaign manager, saw January as a liability (not to mention a “bitch” and a spoiled brat); Tammy, who goes all Munchausen Syndrome in the wake of her daughter’s disappearance; Kaz, the college boy who seemed determined to drive a wedge between January and Flynn; and a whole high school packed with rich, privileged white boys. (Roehrig encapsulates rape culture in all its misogynistic glory.)

Last Seen Leaving is a great book: compelling, compulsively readable, full of heart, and with an ending that just can’t be beat. (I hoped for it, but never dared to dream. Roehrig legit knocked my socks off with those final few pages.) I had expected the coming out plot to dominate the story, but the truth is that the mystery kind of dwarfs it. New evidence forces Flynn to disclose his sexuality to the police (and then to his classmates, to add credence to his “story”) right around the 50% mark, so after that January’s disappearance really becomes the driving force.

Yet this isn’t to suggest that the thread is dropped – just the opposite. We follow Flynn as he deals with the fallout of his confession. While his parents (who clearly suspected; major hints are dropped early on) are cool as hell about it (if a little embarrassing), best friend Micah kind of freaks. And Riverside’s golden boy Mason Collier vacillates between trying to prove how okay-but-not-gay he is with it (“paradoxically proving the opposite”), to letting it be known that he’ll accept a BJ from newly popular Flynn, after he catches the baddie, to finally griping about Flynn being allowed in the locker room after his “generous” advances are spurned. (Holy microaggressions Batman!) Flynn also finds romance in unexpected places (spoilers!), and it’s kind of lovely to watch.

The mystery is at least equally gripping, as Flynn’s snooping takes him to the darkest corners: of the ‘Tammy and Jonathan Walker Show’; the halls of Dumas and Hazelton, where rumors of “bad touch” teachers are whispered, and rape victims are loudly blamed and shamed; and Flynn’s own mind, which is still struggling to define and accept his sexuality (and sometimes lashes out when desire refuses to comport with reality).

Given that it’s an election year, I found it especially difficult to look away from the craven inner workings of the Walker campaign. From afar, January appears to have it all: she lives in a mansion on an estate, goes to the best school, and could quit her job at the toy store any time she wanted. Yet she was cast, against her will, to play a role in Jonathan’s campaign, and he leaves little room for deviation from the script. Jonathan exercises alarming control over January’s life, choosing her school, her after-school and volunteer activities, even her friends. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg, as we soon find out. His drugging a hysterical Tammy without her knowledge or consent – hiding sedatives in her liquor (!!!) – is just a foreshadowing of what’s to come. (This isn’t a spoiler, it’s misdirection. FYI.)

Roehrig also does a great job of throwing shade on initially likable characters – and then flipping the script, so that we maybe don’t love what they did, but understand why they did it. His writing is imbued with empathy – for Flynn, January, Reiko, Micah, and Kaz – and it’s a torch he passes effortlessly to his readers.

One thing I didn’t like? Flynn’s habit of explaining the possibilities in excruciating detail. This is super-annoying when done on crime shows (Blindspot is an especially egregious offender); the detectives verbally working through the most basic and obvious implications of what they found, as if the audience can’t be trusted to put two and two together. It’s a little more forgivable here: Flynn is the narrator and so we’re privy to his inner monologues; of course he’s piecing evidence together and thinking through all the possibilities. But it does get to be a little much after a while. Minor complaint is minor.

More significantly, the book contains problematic language, which is usually identified as such: for example, Mason’s microaggressions and use of gay slurs is obviously wrong, as we see from Flynn’s reaction. Yet Flynn himself uses the word “bitch” as a pejorative on several occasions; e.g., “Threatening to tattle was a bitch move.” This sort of language is realistic, sure, but also super problematic, but never pointed out as such. (In contrast, when sleazebag extraordinaire Eddie Sward calls January a bitch, we know it’s wrong because he’s universally awful. But having the protagonist engage in such behavior without being called on it is officially Not Cool.)

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: When fifteen-year-old Flynn Doherty’s girlfriend January McConville goes missing, the investigation threatens to out him as gay. During the course of his own investigation, Flynn meets and falls for one of January’s coworkers, Kaz Bashiri, who’s also gay. He comes from a conservative Muslim family (his parents refuse to acknowledge his sexuality) and is described variously as having “olive” and “golden” skin.

But the diversity doesn’t begin and end with this primary plot point.

We eventually find out that January was raped (by her drama coach, who was forced out of his last teaching job due to rape allegations) and became pregnant as a result of the assault. She confided in her peer counselor, Reiko Matsuda, an Asian girl who was also raped (and forced out of her last school due to slut shaming and victim blaming).

Flynn’s best friend, Micah Feldman, is Jewish; he spends his summers at Hebrew camp. Micah’s girlfriend (and January’s best friend), Tiana Hughes, is black.

Flynn is visited by two pairs of detectives, one from missing persons and another from homicide, after January’s bloody clothes are found on the Walker property. Each is comprised of a white man and a person of color. Detective Moses is a black woman, and Garcia is (presumably) Latino.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a

 

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