Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Girl I Used To Be by April Henry

Seventeen year old Olivia Reinhart's life is suddenly drawn to the past when Detective Campbell and Chaplain Farben arrive at her apartment to tell her that her missing father has been located. Olivia's real name was Ariel Benson and her parents were Naomi Benson and Terry Weeks.

Fourteen years ago her mother's body was found in a forest in the Southern Oregon Cascade mountains. The family had gone into the forest to find a Christmas tree when a terrible tragedy unfolded. Her mother had been stabbed nineteen times and had desperately tried to fight off her killer. It was widely believed that her father killed her mother and then drove to the Salem Walmart where he dropped three year old Ariel off. His car was later found abandoned at the airport.

Detective Campbell who is from the Portland police tells Olivia that her father's jawbone was recently found by a woman walking her dog. His remains were identified through DNA testing and they now believe her parent's killer probably was the one who drove her to the Walmart. Police are still struggling to determine a motive as robbery was an unlikely motive because Olivia's parents did not have money. It's likely Olivia was left alive because she was considered too young to tell police what she had seen.

Olivia remembers the episodes that carried her mother's murder on America's Most Wanted. The first episode helped police located her when she went missing. After her mother's murder and her father's disappearance, three year old Ariel was taken to live with her grandma who soon died. Ariel was placed in foster care and then adopted when she was eight years old by Tamsin Reinhart who was an orthopedic surgeon in Portland. She changed Ariel's name to Olivia. Olivia was lonely and scared but began acting out because of her anger. Eventually Tamsin gave Olivia up.

Olivia decides to attend her father's funeral in Medford but first stops to see her grandmother's old home. This house will be hers when she turns eighteen; Olivia receives rental income from tenants but the house has been vacant for the last three months. At the home she meets her old neighbour, Nora Murdoch who doesn't recognize Olivia. Nora was friends with Olivia's grandmother, Sharon and she tells Olivia about what happened to Sharon's daughter Naomi and her little girl Ariel. Olivia offers to take Nora to the funeral in Medford. At the service, Olivia sees pictures of her father and meets  some of her father's relatives, although they do not know Olivia is his daughter. In attendance is Sam, her father's ex-girlfriend, her Aunt Carly and her daughter, Richard Lee a friend of Olivia's father, his best friend Jason, Heather who was best friend to Olivia's mother Naomi. Olivia also meets a cute guy named Duncan, whose parents know Olivia's father. Olivia tells Duncan that she's from Seattle because she wants to keep her identity secret.

Olivia makes arrangements to rent her grandmother's house without revealing her identity, convincing Richard Lee who is the property manager she is able to pay the rent. She also manages to get herself a job at Fred Meyers. At the house, Olivia is visited by Duncan who reveals to her that he knows she is Ariel Benson. This is because of a scar on the palm of her hand due to an accident that involved the two of them when they were children. When he questions Olivia as to why she never told her family at the funeral, she denies she is Ariel and then insists that he not tell anyone her true identity. Olivia is concerned that whoever killed her parents may still be interested in knowing what she remembers and may try to find her. She is certain the killer is someone who lives in Medford.

Duncan then shows up at Fred Meyers and tells Olivia that he understands why she doesn't want people to know her true identity, but insists that she will  need his help to learn what really happened to her parents. Olivia reluctantly agrees to let him help her and together the two begin to dig deeper into what happened that day. It's only when Olivia returns to the site of the murders that things begin to heat up, placing Olivia square in the sights of the real killer.

Discussion

The Girl I Used To Be is a quick read for those who like a murder mystery. Although the story takes some time to ramp up, Henry builds to a heart pounding climax. Readers will likely be able to figure out who the killer is, but Henry rounds up the usual suspects; a mentally ill man, a former girlfriend, and a classmate whose life seemed to abruptly turn around after the murders.

Scattered throughout Olivia's first person narrative are flashbacks to the crime, but none really reveal much - as one would expect from a person who is trying to remember an event that occurred when they were three years old. Olivia is a determined, resilient protagonist who must rethink her past, her parent's relationship and how she thinks about her father whom she assumed was a murderer.  To solve the crime, Olivia in a sense, goes under cover in Medford. People don't remember who she is because Olivia left when she was a child. Her relationship with Nora, friend and neighbour to Olivia's grandmother and mother,  allows Olivia to attend her father's wake unrecognized. A touch of romance is added with the inclusion of childhood friend Duncan who is not fooled and who quickly suspects Olivia's true identity.

A good, easy read for those who like their novels short and sweet.

Book Details:

The Girl I Used To Be by April Henry
New York: Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Company    2016
229 pp.


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