Title: Things You Won’t Say
Author: Sarah Pekkanen
No. of Pages: 352
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Origins: Washington Square Press
Release Date: 26 May 2015
“Every morning, as her husband Mike straps on his SIG Sauer and pulls on his heavy Magnum boots, Jamie Anderson tenses up. Then comes the call she has always dreaded: There’s been a shooting at police headquarters. Mike isn’t hurt, but his long-time partner is grievously injured. As weeks pass and her husband’s insomnia and disconnectedness mount, Jamie realizes he is an invisible casualty of the attack. Then the phone rings again. Another shooting — but this time Mike has pulled the trigger.
But the shooting does more than just alter Jamie’s world. It’s about to change everything for two other women. Christie Simmons, Mike’s flamboyant ex, sees the tragedy as an opportunity for a second chance with Mike. And Jamie’s younger sister, Lou, must face her own losses to help the big sister who raised her. As the press descends and public cries of police brutality swell, Jamie tries desperately to hold together her family, no matter what it takes.
In her characteristic exploration of true-to-life relationships, Sarah Pekkanen has written a complex, compelling, and open-hearted novel — her best yet.”
Thoughts on the Novel: There are two areas of concern within Things You Won’t Say that may make readers nervous. For one, there is the ex-girlfriend who suddenly decides that her very married ex is really the man of her dreams after over a decade apart. When life is difficult enough for women, does the world need yet another jealous woman scenario who actively contemplates breaking up a marriage? This trope is the Mean Girls of adulthood, and while it may be all-too common, it does not mean readers want to read about it all the time.
Ms. Pekkanen uses other female tropes throughout the story as well, thereby compounding the issue. Just as Christie is the femme fatale, Jamie is the put-upon wife who struggles to keep her family afloat during this time of crisis. Her crisis mode does not mesh well with Mike’s crisis mode, and the ensuing fracturing of their marriage is inevitable and thoroughly predictable. It is not that Jamie is a bad character. Her heart is in the right place. However, there is nothing fresh and unique about her. She is exactly what you would expect of a stay-at-home mother in any given novel. Combine that with Christie’s own issues, and one gets a novel with very tiresome main female leads that does not engender empathy or even sympathy because there is nothing original about them.
The second area of concern is the main conflict of the story – Mike’s involvement of the tragic shooting of a Latino teenager. While Ms. Pekkanen does an excellent job of showing both sides of this ripped-from-the-headlines scenario, it is still very much one person’s idealized perspective of such situations. Moreover, Ms. Pekkanen romanticizes Mike’s situation by making him as much of a victim of circumstance as the poor teenager. To create such a story at a time when race relations, police brutality, and the considerable paucity of answers are at the forefront of today’s social conscience does not help one understand the hows and the whys of such situations. In fact, it sweeps them under the rug as unimportant details. In real life, rarely are these scenes brought to such a tidy close with clear-cut resolutions, and one cannot help but wonder if Things You Won’t Say will cause more harm than good as a result.
Ms. Pekkanen tries her best to tackle an incredibly difficult topic. Her timeliness is certainly impeccable given that she submitted the manuscript for Things You Won’t Say months in advance of the Ferguson riots. Perhaps, a year ago, readers would not question the story’s tidiness and the sympathetic bent Mike’s character has. Today, however, thanks to such controversies, a reader is more sensitive to such scenarios, and as such, may not be as willing to accept the ending as it stands. Its precision and concrete answers ring false in today’s world of he said/he said finger-pointing in which race is more of a factor than anyone would have ever previously believed and there are no satisfactory answers. Add to that the generic female tropes of scorned ex and uncommunicative but righteous wife and one gets Things You Won’t Say. As previously mentioned, it is ambitious but ultimately not one of Ms. Pekkanen’s best.
That’s a very interesting review! I’ve only read a couple short stories by Pekkanen but I do have a couple of her books on my shelves. This being said, the femme fatale versus housewife is a trope I’m really not a fan of, so that’s probably not a novel I would start with when I finally read her, I guess! Thanks for such a thoughtful post.
I do love some of Sarah’s other novels. My favorite of hers is Skipping a Beat. I highly recommend that one to you if you still want to read something written by her.
Nice review. Sounds like you pinpointed the drawbacks persuasively
I just finished a book with a “tiresome main female lead” and I always have to wonder: is it just my reaction? does the author think it’s a good female lead?
I like when books turn out to be “timely” … not that I like the existence of the subject of the timeliness, but it adds a lot of meaning to the story and gives one more to think about than one might do ordinarily.
I struggle with such tropes too. Do publishers/editors know that there are issues with a character or a plot at the time of publication? Or is it just my interpretation of the novel that causes me heartburn? Food for thought…