Saturday, June 22, 2013

If You Were Here (book) by Alafair Burke

If You Were Here is a thriller. I got it as an ARC at a conference, and, amazingly, I've managed to read and review it the same month it came out.


McKenna used to be a lawyer, until she accused a cop of being dirty and was proved wrong. Now, she works as a journalist, and a story about a young athlete saved from being run over by an oncoming train has caught her attention. When she digs deeper, she learns that Nicky, the young athlete, had been stealing phones. His last victim ran after him, saved him when he fell on the train tracks, and ran off after taking her phone back.

One of the bystanders recorded video the incident. Once she sees that footage, all McKenna cares about is the mysterious woman who saved Nicky. She looks very much like Susan, a friend of McKenna's who vanished without a trace 10 years ago.


I had never read any of Burke's books prior to reading this and didn't even bother to check if it was part of a series (it's not) until after I was a few chapters in. The setup interested me: was the woman who simultaneously saved Nicky and took her phone back from him really McKenna's friend? If so, why did she disappear? Since such a big deal was made of the mysterious woman's physical strength, and since I've apparently read way too much urban fantasy, my first theory was that Susan disappeared after she became part of some kind of experiment that gave her super-strength. She escaped and went off the radar until the day Nicky stole her phone and McKenna spotted her in video footage of the incident. That, by the way, is totally not what happened.

A lot of threads from the past mingled with ones in the present. McKenna was working on a book, telling her side of the events that led to the destruction of her career as a lawyer. Susan disappeared at around the same time those events occurred, and for a while I wondered if the mysterious woman only looked like Susan to McKenna because of the book she was working on. Whoever the woman really was, though, McKenna had clearly hit on a secret someone didn't want getting out – someone put a lot of effort into discrediting her.

The story's pacing was pretty good, and I was interested enough in what was going on to keep reading, but this book never rose above “meh” for me. I knew several things about a lot of the book's characters, but, in the end, only McKenna and Scanlin ever felt like they had much depth, and I think that was mostly because they were POV characters. When McKenna began to doubt Patrick, her husband, it was easy enough to doubt him along with her, because I didn't feel like I knew him much, beyond a few personal details. It was harder to begin trusting him again, because I still didn't know him all that well – I was supposed to trust him because McKenna was saying he could be trusted.

I had the same issues with Susan. I was constantly told that Susan was McKenna's best friend, that she knew her so well, etc., except it didn't really seem like she knew her well at all. She knew lots of bits and pieces about her life – that she had daddy issues, was good at making friends, slept around a lot – but all these things were presented in a way that felt shallow to me. And yet she supposedly cared so much about Susan and her sudden disappearance that, 10 years later, she was willing to go against what everyone was telling her and do whatever it took to find a woman who might or might not be Susan. I couldn't quite believe it, but I tried to go along with it.

This book showed me that it's possible to have too many twists and turns. There were so many of them near the end of the book that I think I overloaded a bit. “Yet another twist? Whatever.” The number of characters and events Burke managed to connect stretched the bounds of believability. I suppose it was all possible, it just didn't seem very likely.

All in all, this was an okay book, but not a great one. The setup and military aspects were interesting, but the characters didn't grab me.

Sorry for the short list of read-alikes - I don't really read many thrillers, and I got tired of reading reviews and book descriptions. A few of the places I looked listed Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs as good read-alike authors for Alafair Burke fans, but I'm pretty sure both those authors write books that are gorier than If You Were Here.

  • Caught (book) by Harlan Coben - Those looking for another complex and suspenseful story might want to give this a try. I haven't read it, but according to descriptions it features a journalist who, like McKenna, may have wrongly accused someone.
  • Reconstructing Amelia (book) by Kimberly McCreight - Another one I haven't read, although reviews and descriptions of it came to mind as I was reading Burke's book. In this thriller, Kate, a lawyer and single mom, tries to reconstruct her daughter's last days using emails, text messages, social media postings, and anything else she can find. If you liked reading about McKenna's efforts to uncover Susan's secrets and the secrets of all the events that occurred 10 years ago, you might want to give this one a try.

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