Stella Parfitt has just graduated from Kimble High School and is ready to begin a new phase of her life. She lives with her mom, Teresa (Terri) Parfitt, in the small town of Epping in the Epping Forest District of Essex, England. Stella plans to get a job in an office and her own place eventually. In the meantime, she tries to keep her mother, who seems emotionally unstable and who is perpetually in bad relationships, on an even keel.
When Forget Me Not opens, Stella's mum arrives home drunk at 2 am in the morning after being out with an exboyfriend. Later that day, they learn that the youngest child, Jade of the Henderson family who live down the street has been taken from her cot during the night. Stella's world begins to unravel when the police show up at their door wanting to question her mother. Stella discovers that her mother harbours a huge secret - that twenty years ago, Terri was implicated in the disappearance of a 15 month old baby, Lizzie Gilbert. Lizzie was never found and Terri, who was 18 years old at the time, was never charged.
Forget Me Not tells two stories; the current story focuses on the events surrounding the disappearance of Jade Henderson and how this affects Stella and Terri and is told in the voice of Stella. The past is voiced by Terri who relates the events leading up to the disappearance of Lizzie Gilbert and ten years afterwards. In this way, the reader learns what happened to Lizzie before Stella does.
Forget Me Not is a remarkable book in many ways. First of all, it provided me with a window into a segment of British society - the lower middle working class that I believe is very accurate but disconcerting. Most, if not all the characters in the book are disagreeable and unlikeable. They make bad choices, are amoral, and appear do whatever feels best for them, often ignoring the possible consequences to themselves and others around them. Yet they are typical of the way many people live today in our post-modern Western culture.
The portrayal of Lizzie Gilbert's mother, Jackie, a single mom with three children, all with different fathers, is particularly disturbing. At the time of Lizzie's disappearance she has taken up with yet another man, Kirk, and is pregnant by him. Kirk is a slimy, creepy character, who shows no interest in the welfare of Jackie's children who may be abusive towards little Lizzie. It's a typical situation of a certain type of single mother - the woman who is emotionally needy and who makes bad choices when it comes to relationships. As a single mother myself, I KNOW how hard it can be to raise a family by oneself. Many single mothers are amazing and do a great job. But many single moms are also typical of Jackie.
Stella's mother, Terri doesn't contribute much in the way of improving the image of single mothers either. We learn from her past that she had a thing for older men when she was younger and makes a terrible choice that has disastrous consequences for her, for many years to come. Because she has not dealt in a honest manner with the Gilbert kidnapping, she has not allowed anyone to get close to her. She is always protecting her secret. But part of her lack of any real meaningful relationship with any man is also due to the poor behaviour of the men she has been involved with both as an 18 year old and onwards. Stella also notes that her mother seems to be two people; a well dressed business woman by day, and more like an immature adult in jeans and clunky jewelry by night.
Stella Parfitt is a more complicated character. In some ways she is very much like most of the other characters in the book. Although she goes to Mass, she's a typical example of a young poorly catechized Catholic. Like her relationship with God, her relationship with Robbie is very superficial. She considers him immature but it's obvious she pursued him because she was infatuated with him and at one time thought he was cool. When he shows a lack of interest in sex, Stella decides to dump him. Stella also doesn't seem to have many girlfriends and seems to be a loner.
However, Stella does have some redeeming character qualities. It's quite evident her life has been hard. She knows nothing about her father and very little about her mother. It is sad to see how she often takes on the role of the adult in her relationship with her mother caring for her both emotionally and physically at times. And in the end, she is also her mother's conscience, prompting her to finally do the right thing and tell the truth about the Lizzie Gilbert disappearance.
The married couple, Maggie and Steve Ryan, whose children Terri babysat when she was a teenager, appear to be the typical urban couple with a few kids. Steve however, is yet another male who is selfish and concerned only about himself. He uses Terri and then doesn't man up and help her when she needs him most.
The very liberal attitudes towards many aspects of life are seen throughout the novel. For example, maybe it's a European attitude, but it was interesting to see this couple suggest that Terri finish a half bottle of wine one night while she's babysitting. I can't think of any couple I know ever suggesting this to a babysitter. It would be considered highly inappropriate and irresponsible.
Cassidy does a great job of keeping the exact circumstances of both Lizzie and Jade's disappearances a mystery to the reader. I went through a number of scenarios regarding Terri's involvement in Lizzie's disappearance before finally learning the truth about what happened.
This is a well written book that offers some great discussion points on mother-daughter relationships, single mothers, and modern society.
Forget Me Not by Anne Cassidy
Toronto: Scholastic Canada Ltd