On the surface, Vanishing Girls appears to be a mystery about two missing girls, but is essentially a story about the grief and guilt experienced after a traumatic loss. The story is told by two narrators, Nicole (Nick) and Dara Warren, both before and after a terrible automobile accident. The story begins just before the accident on March 27 but also includes flashbacks to provide some backstory.
Seventeen year old Nick and her sixteen year old sister Dara are at a party on the evening of March 27. Later that night, at 11:55pm, Nick crashes her car and Dara is seriously injured after she flies into the side window of the vehicle. Nick and Dara's parents' marriage broke up months ago, her father living in a condo in ritzy Main Heights while their mother along with Dara live in Somerville. After recovering, Nick lives with her father until she is caught skinny dipping the night of July 15. Concerned about her well being Nick's father takes her to live at her mother's home in Somerville. Since the break-up of her marriage and the terrible accident, Nick's mother has been struggling, so Nick is not keen to live with her. She's also anxious about reconnecting with Dara, whom she hasn't spoken to since the accident.
Nick wants to return to work at the Palladium during the summer break, but her mother refuses and tells her she has arranged for her to work at the nearby amusement park, Fantasy Land, run by Greg Wilcox, a former math teacher from her mother's old school. Nick goes upstairs to see Dara but she's fled out her bedroom window. Dara has no intention of talking to Nick whom she describes as "Perfect Nicki. The Good Child" Dara was badly injured in the car accident, breaking her kneecaps, pelvis, wrist and tibia. Her head went through the passenger window leaving her with red scars on her forehead, cheek and neck.
On July 20, the media reports the "possible" abduction of nine year old Madeline Snow from a car outside Big Scoop Ice Cream. Madeline disappeared from the back seat of the car after her sister Sarah and her friend Kennedy left her alone.
The same day, Nick starts her new job at Fantasy Land, nicknamed FanLand. Nick hasn't seen Dara in the two days she's been home.At FanLand Nick is shocked to see that her once best friend, John Parker works there. Parker as she affectionately calls him is a childhood friend that both Nick and Dara hung out with together. Parker was Nick's best friend for years; they did everything together. Then in December of last year things changed after Dara broke up with her latest boyfriend and she began dating Parker. But Nick hasn't thought about him for months. Nick is assigned to a work crew with Parker who acts as her tour guide for FanLand, showing her the ropes. At the end of their shift, Parker invites Nick to a party at the Drink which is a local nickname for the Saskawatchee River.
Nick writes Dara a note telling her about the party at the Drink. Impulsively Dara decides to go to the party, grabbing Nicks hoodie to hide the facial scars she received from the accident. At the party Dara meets her "former" best friend, Ariana and her ex-boyfriend, Parker who tries to apologize about what happened between them. Dara doesn't want to deal with Parker and feeling like an outsider she decides to leave. But not before the party is raided by cops and Dara leaves behind Nick's hoodie. The next day, July 22, Nick is confronted by a woman cop who insists that she was at the party at the river. Nick doesn't give away Dara but takes the blame and is ordered to do community service by helping to search for missing Madeline Snow. Furious at Dara, Nick leaves her a note telling her she is the one who needs to do the community service.
After seeing Nick's note, Dara helps out in the search for Madeline Snow. During the line search, she meets a woman named Cookie Hendrickson who worked at MLK High when Dara's mom worked there. Her questions to Dara are interrupted by Margie, a reporter who works for the Shoreline Blotter. AFter volunteering Dara receives a text from an unknown number which she deletes. She also meets Sarah Snow, Madeline's older sister. Sarah tells Dara, "I was trying so hard to protect her...It's all my fault...The lying is the hardest part, isn't it?"
On July 23, after dinner with her dad and his girlfriend, Cheryl, Dara's father tells her that he and her mother plan to have a family dinner at Sergei's on Dara's birthday. Dara agrees to this even though she's not happy about the idea.
By July 28, Nick has settled into her job at FanLand. She's now playing the part of a mermaid in the park's pirate singing show. Parker and Nick have mended their relationship, eating lunch together at work and taking breaks together. The evening before the park's anniversary party, Nick and Parker are assigned garbage duty to clean the park. While passing the closed Gateway ride, Nick thinks she hears someone humming and wonders if the ride is truly haunted. Before leaving for the night, Parker and Nick spend some time together at the wave pool when Nick asks Parker if he still loves her sister. Parker admits that he never was truly in love with her but that he misses her.
Later that night Parker shows up drunk at the Warren home and convinces Dara to spend a few minutes talking with him in his car. He tells Dara that he loves her but when he calls out Nick's name she is furious and leaves.
The next day is July 29th, Dara's seventeenth birthday. Nick arranges a special surprise for her sister, asking her to meet her at the Gateway to Heaven ride at 10pm when FanLand is closing. Dara is not in her room in the morning and later on in the day does not show at a family dinner at a restaurant. Nick believes she saw Dara getting on a bus to FanLand and when she arrives at the restaurant she tells her parents and her Aunt Jackie that Dara is not coming because their family no longer exists due to their father leaving. Nick leaves the restaurant and returns home later on to confront Dara but she's still not home. She returns to FanLand in the hopes of meeting Dara at 10pm but when she doesn't show Nick begins to wonder if Dara is in trouble. "All along, I've been assuming she just blew us off tonight. But what if she didn't? What if something bad happened? ....What if, what if, what if. The drumbeat of the past four years of my life."
Searching through Dara's phone, Nick discovers disturbing pictures of her sister in various compromising situations. The pictures were sent March 26, the day before the accident. Nick begins to suspect that these pictures contain the truth of what happened before the accident, events she cannot remember. "This is it: somehow, in these pictures, the mystery of the accident is contained, and the explanation for Dara's subsequent behavior, for the silences and disappearances." Determined to learn what has happened to Dara, Nick begins following the thread connecting Dara to whoever sent the photos. It is a journey that will finally uncover her sister's darkest secret, lead her to find Madeline Snow and help her to recover her own identity and heal.
**This discussion contains spoilers.**
Vanishing Girls is marketed to readers as a mystery - one that involves the disappearance of two girls. However, this novel is one of several recent young adult novels that deals with dissociative identity in teenagers. Dissociation, which sometimes occurs as a result of severe trauma, is a complex illness that is often misunderstood and often poorly treated. It's a difficult condition to write into a story but Lauren Oliver is up to the task in Vanishing Girls. The story is told by two sisters, Nick and Dara who have experienced a traumatic event - a car accident. The story, like the main character, is further fragmented by narratives that are labelled Before and After, in reference to this accident. The Before narratives by both girls provide the backstory to their lives; Nick the good older sister and Dara, the wild younger girl who parties and has plenty of boyfriends. We learn from this backstory that a sort of love triangle developed between Nick, Dara and Parker. They all started out as childhood friends, but Dara changed the parameters of the friendship when she began hooking up with Parker. This caused a huge rift between the two sisters as Nick considered Parker to be her best friend. Dara's on again, off again relationship with Parker eventually results in huge problems for everyone. The After narratives deal with the short time period from July 15 until July 29 when Nick returns to her mother's home to live. Further complicating the After narratives is that Nick does not remember what happened before the car accident.
What the reader doesn't know is that Nicole Warren is suffering from deep trauma as a result of the death of her sister Dara in the car accident and she not only hallucinates, but eventually assumes Dara's identity in addition to retaining her own identity. So everything that Dara narrates AFTER the accident is really Nick's narrative as Dara. Oliver provides her readers with many subtle clues; Dara and Nick actually never have a direct conversation with one another and conversations between Nick and other characters such as Parker, her parents and Aunt Jackie, are open ended so that they can be read several ways. For example, when Nick is talking to Parker about the party at the Drink she believes she never went to the party. But Parker saw her there and spoke with her and is angry because she left so quickly. Because the narrator of this event was Dara, the reader assumes that it is Dara they are talking about. Nick however was there, as Dara, but dressed in her own hoodie!
The hints become more obvious as the story moves along but can still be read two ways. For example, in Dara's narrative when Parker shows up at the Warren house drunk, the reader believes he is with Dara. Parker asks "Dara' if he can speak with her for a few minutes. They go to his car and begin making out, when Parker tells her he loves her and then says Nick's name - because of course Parker is actually with Nick, not Dara (who is really dead). But Nick who has taken on Dara's identity acts exactly as Dara would - she is furious and leaves. The reality is that Parker is actually with Nick whom he does love.
Eventually what emerges from the story is a very disordered relationship between Nick who considers herself a caretaker for her rebellious, wild younger sister. always rescuing her. When she can't save Dara, her world crumbles, her identity as the caretaker lost.
The use of Nick as an unreliable narrator helps build suspense throughout the novel. We don't really know what happened the night of the accident due to Nick's repressed memories. And as Nick explores Dara's life she begins to uncover secrets about her sister that connect her to Sarah Snow and ultimately lead her to solve the mystery of Madeline Snow's disappearance.
Oliver does a great job of tying together all the loose ends of the story using emails between Nick's parents and her doctors and medical reports, so that readers fully understand what happened to Nick, what led to the accident, and how Madeline Snow came to disappear.
The book cover is well done - the out of focus cover image hinting at the confusion Nick is experiencing after the trauma of the car accident. In the style of Ransom Riggs, Oliver has placed photographs in her novel that are supposed to relate to parts of the story. The novel could have done without the pictures, which were infrequent enough as to not have added to the story.
Overall, Vanishing Girls is a very good read.
Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver (Laura Schecter)
New York: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers 2015