In the new psychological thriller Come with Me by Erin Flanagan, a woman, put simply, is forced to grow up. She hasn’t realised she needed to until circumstances make her come to terms with her responsibilities. Taking charge of your own life, when you’re accustomed to letting others make the important decisions for you, isn’t easy. But not doing it might become deadly.
Gwen thinks she has what she’s always wanted: a devoted husband, a lovely daughter and a nice life in Boulder, Colorado. The tiny cracks are only at the edges and at least she’s far from the confines of Dayton, Ohio, the mid-sized, middle-America city where she grew up.
Once, just out of college, she did strike out on her own briefly with a four-month internship at a Dayton media company. While the other two interns paired up as leader and acolyte, Gwen stayed outside their circle, preoccupied with her upcoming wedding.
Ten years later, but early in the story, her husband Todd has a fatal heart attack, leaving Gwen bereft. She assumes the technology business he started will continue to support her, but his death isn’t the only blow. In charge of all their finances, Todd has sunk all the couple’s money into the business and run up huge debts, bankrupting them.
No husband, no money, no house, no job experience – she’s forced to move back to Dayton into the home of her increasingly debilitated mother.
One lucky thing, though. Looking online she sees that Nicola, leader among that trio of interns in Dayton, is still at the company and has moved up smartly in the organisation. When Gwen calls her to explain her plight, Nicola starts throwing out lifelines.
If you have ever had a manipulative friend, if you’ve learned the hard way that favours often come with strings attached, and if you recognise the signs someone is seeking power and control, you will wish fervently that Gwen were more aware. But even she has limits. Watching her complete trust in Nicola crumble ever so gradually is one of the chief pleasures of this story. And, while we might wish it would happen sooner, that’s not who Gwen is.
We can see ourselves in situations in which we just don’t want to see another person’s possible ulterior motives and don’t want to be the kind of suspicious, doubting person we fear we might become. We understand Gwen, we feel for her. Slowing Gwen’s realisation is uncertainty about what Nicola is really up to or what motivates her actions. Lacking that, it’s so much easier – and Nicola makes it much more convenient – for Gwen just to take their friendship at face value.
But she does start to doubt. Not only that, Gwen becomes suspicious of what Nicola has done and frightened of what she might be capable of. Yet Gwen must rely on her as a friend and perhaps feels in debt to her.
The story is focused pretty tightly on a small cast of women: Gwen, her daughter, her mother, and, of course Nicola. In a few interspersed chapters, Nicola’s own difficult upbringing comes to light. She had an older sister, and, if she knew anything as a child, it was that her sister would always protect her. The girls had different fathers, and Nicola’s father was killed in an auto accident. Left alone, the girls’ mother was mother in name only – a drug-user and prostitute who was in jail while Nikki was in high school. She never had any normal adult role-modelling. But she was smart and earned a full-ride scholarship to the local college.
Her emotional deficits aside, by the time of the internship, Nicola has developed five rules for living and Gwen knows them well. They underline the book’s themes and demarcate its sections. They also reflect Nicola’s own actions and track Gwen’s growth. And they’re not bad, either, as far as simple nuggets of advice go. At the same time, they’re open-ended enough that characters can interpret them in vastly different ways. Nicola’s rules are: Don’t let anyone make you feel small; know your friends (that’s a biggie for Gwen); trust your instincts (ditto); never look back; and truth, not facts.
Author Erin Flanagan lives in Dayton, Ohio, and writes about life in the town with great authenticity. She is also a professor of English at Wright State University in Dayton and won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for her debut novel, Deer Season, which I also enjoyed tremendously.
Thomas & Mercer
CFL Rating: 4 Stars