“On a cold December day in northern upstate New York, the body of high school senior Joy Enright is discovered in the woods at the edge of a pond. She had been presumed drowned, but an autopsy shows that she was, in fact, strangled. As the investigation unfolds, four characters tell the story from widely divergent perspectives: Susanne, Joy’s mother and a professor at the local art college; Martin, a black graduate student suspected of the murder; Harper, Joy’s best friend and a potential eyewitness; and Tom, a rescue diver and son-in-law of the town’s police chief. As a web of small-town secrets comes to light, a dramatic conclusion reveals the truth about Joy’s death.”
My Thoughts: Jessica Treadway’s latest novel is another take on the age-old story of the secrets people keep and the problems these secrets cause for others. Told from four different points of view, the story revolves around Joy, her life as seen by others before and after her death. However, as much as Joy is at the center of the novel, How Will I Know You? is not so much a murder mystery as it is a portrait of a small community reeling from the death of one of their own.
The problem with the story told by four different characters is that the ultimate question – who killed Joy – is not one that is answered in a timely fashion. In fact, the answer is almost an aside, shown to provide closure for the reader than for the narrators or town. Then there is the issue of the four narrators themselves. One never really gets a chance to know them. They dive into each of their narratives without providing a clear understanding of their motivations. Some reveal more throughout the course of the novel which does help, but others remain mysteries.
For example, Tom spends much of his time lamenting the cracks in his marriage, the pull of his father-in-law, and his in-laws’ constant presence in his married life. Yet, we never understand why he married his wife in the first place, what prompted him to seek out the daughter of the police chief. We learn he grew up in the same town, so presumably he would have some inkling that he would be marrying not just the daughter but the whole family. There are unanswered whys to Tom’s story that would go a long way to explaining his behavior throughout the novel and his involvement in the drama. The same holds true for Harper and Susanne. Both remain undefined in key ways that make it difficult to find either character sympathetic or interesting.
Ultimately, this lack of definition on the part of the narrators weakens the story. As the rest of the town seeks the culprit and searches for closure, the narrators remain wrapped up in their personal dramas. Their selfishness is not surprising but upsetting all the same. They make Joy’s death about themselves. For Martin, this is understandable given that he is the primary suspect in her murder. For him, Joy’s death is personal. The other narrators, however, spend most of their time justifying their actions, past and present, as if seeking forgiveness for their involvement however circumspect it may be. Given the lack of details and clear definition of their characters, the inward focus of their narrative prevents readers from becoming too involved in the story.
At the end of the day, How Will I Know You? is a forgettable murder mystery that draws too much on the oft-used motif of small town secrets. The four narrators remain ill-defined, even while sharing their personal insights and involvement in Joy’s death, whether they understand their involvement or not. There is a larger cast of characters that remains equally nebulous and adds, thereby adding confusion by making it difficult to differentiate between them. The murder mystery becomes less urgent as each of the narrators worry more about what they are experiencing even while the murder mystery is what keeps people reading the novel. In her focus on the inner workings of subsidiary characters, Ms. Treadway provides no fresh insight on the secrets theme, dooming her novel to a bland obscurity.