Despite its name, Ponder, Texas, pop. 1,101, isn’t a very good place to think. Four months out of the year, it’s too damn hot to think.
It is a good place to get lost. That’s what my mother did thirty-two years ago. The fact that she successfully hid this from almost everyone who loved her makes her a pretty good liar. I’m not sure what it says about me. [Opening Paragraphs]
Playing Dead by Julia Heaberlin
Ballantine Books, 2012
Crime Fiction, 352 pgs
From the author's website:
What if your whole life was a lie?
That's the question torturing child psychologist Tommie McCloud after she opens a stranger's letter only days after burying her father. The woman claims that Tommie is her child, kidnapped thirty-two years ago. Suddenly, a deeply rooted Texas girl finds herself linked to a horrific past: the slaughter of a family in Chicago, the murder of an Oklahoma beauty queen and the kidnapping of a little girl named Adriana. With everything she has ever believed in question and a stalker determined to stop her, Tommie must discover the truth about her family's secrets and the girl who vanished.The first half of 2012 has turned out to be a fantastic year for crime fiction, at least at my end. I have had the privilege of reading several mysteries that have stood out and made me take notice, most from established authors I am beating myself up over for not getting to sooner. Then there is Playing Dead, Julia Heaberlin's first novel, although you wouldn't know it. She has a masterful grip on storytelling as well as character development. Julia Heaberlin weaves her characters and their stories together seamlessly. The characters are the story, really.
Heaberlin's writing drew me in immediately and it was difficult to tear myself away. In fact, I, who am lucky to get one book finished in a week, read this book in a day. I was that hooked (and lucky to find the time!). Even when away from the book, I found myself thinking about it, wanting to go back, and I hated to see the book end. My heart raced with just about every page. Cliche, I know, but true.
Tommie's world is turned upside down when she first receives the letter suggesting her life as she knows it is based on a lie. Tommie is one tough lady with a very hard outer shell. As the story unfolds, the reader begins to see a more vulnerable Tommie, one who is scarred and touched by her past. She never ceases to be independent, headstrong and resourceful, but she also doesn't fit the usual stereotypical tough sassy heroine in a suspense novel. Tommie is layered. She felt real.
The first person narrative is perfect for Playing Dead. It gives the reader the opportunity to process the information coming in just as the protagonist does--feel what she is feeling and come to the same revelations she does. And Heaberlin catches just the right tone and pacing to make it all the more meaningful in Tommie's case. My heart beat faster right alongside Tommie's. I felt her fear. I felt her doubts. I felt her grief and frustration. I felt her determination. I felt her love and devotion to her family. The author is also able to give the reader a good feel for many of the other characters in the novel and what they are experiencing, something that isn't always easy to do from a single first person perspective. Jack Smith comes to mind as an example. He is such an interesting character on many levels, one whose story touched me to the core. Unfortunately, to say too much more about him would take us into the realm of spoilers.
There were other characters who won my affection: the smart and thoughtful Maddie, Tommie's niece and world; Sadie, Tommie's sister and voice of reason; and Hudson. He's a man who has a lot of connections, a reputation for getting things done, and is sexy as all get out. Okay, so he may be the one character in the book who is too good to be true, but I sure do like him.
Tommie and Sadie's mother, Ingrid, was another character that I really cared about. Her particular story was more about the past, given that she has dementia and is able to remember--or at least share--so little. As I read the novel, it was quite apparent Ingrid suffered from depression. I so wish I could have known her better . . . I know Tommie felt the same way.
Heaberlin takes the reader down unexpected paths as her novel unfolds, and there's a bit of everything from romance to action to self reflection and to the mystery itself. The story is layered and complex. I found the novel not only entertaining, but thought provoking too. This is one of those novels that is more than just a mystery and really is more of a crossover, delving into issues such as loss, grief, post traumatic stress, familial relationships and the toll secrets can have on someone. It'd make for a great discussion, I think!
I am going to go so far as to say this is one of my favorite book of the year so far. I look forward to reading more by this author in the future.
To learn more about the Julia Heaberlin and her book, please visit the author's website.
I hope you will check out what others had to say on the TLC Book Tours route!
Many thanks to the TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to be a part of this book tour. E-copy of Playing Dead provided by the publisher.