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Book review: 'The End of Everything' by Megan Abbott

A teenage girl disappears, and her best friend learns that she didn't know her friend as well as she thought.

September 09, 2011|By Paula L. Woods, Special to the Los Angeles Times
(Little, Brown and Company )

There is something about child abductions that captures the public's imagination like no other crime. Whether it's the more common parental ones or infamous kidnappings like the Lindbergh baby in 1932 and the more recent Polly Klaas, Elizabeth Smart and Jaycee Dugard cases, such crimes have even spurred some spectators to travel across the country to join searches for the missing victims or attend the trials.

While memoir, nonfiction and academic books have long explored such crimes as a sociological phenomenon, fictional accounts concern themselves with the toll on the victims as well as their circle of family and friends. Two notable novels, by Jacquelyn Mitchard ("The Deep End of the Ocean") and Toni Cade Bambara, ("Those Bones Are Not My Child"), were published in the 1990s; in 2002, Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones" told the harrowing story of a child abduction from the perspective of the ghostly victim and those left to grieve. In 2010, Emma Donoghue's novel "Room," shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, explored the lives of an abducted young woman and the child she bore, both inside and outside the room where they were held captive.

Now comes "The End of Everything," Megan Abbott's fifth novel, set in an upper Midwest suburb in the mid-1980s. Lizzie is a 13-year-old living with her brother and recently divorced mother. Her best friend is 13-year-old Evie, with whom she believes she shares every thought and secret as only pre-pubescent girls can. Evie lives across the street in the charmed Verver house with her sister Dusty, who's "a deeply glamorous seventeen" in Lizzie's eyes and whose wondrous sensuality is as magnetic to the town's boys as it is mysterious to the younger girls. Dusty and Evie's mother is a tidy, bland woman who stays in the background, overpowered by the personalities of Dusty and Mr. Verver, an affable, affectionate father who smells of "fresh air and limes and Christmas nutmeg" and whose presence is so overwhelming that Lizzie feels him "always vibrating in my chest, under my fingernails, in all kinds of places."

The Ververs possess a magical household — the princess daughter and gallant father spinning their stories and secret jokes, occasionally allowing the younger girls into their inner circle for trips to the pool or the lake, or out for pie. But for Lizzie, it's as much about Mr. Verver as being with Dusty and Evie. "I couldn't remember a time when I wasn't craning my neck to look up at him," Lizzie recalls, "forever wanting to hear more, hungry for moments he would shine his attentions on me."

Lizzie is a lonely child searching for a father figure, but it's more than that. Lizzie and Evie's world crackles with barely formed longings, furtive glances at adults' groping, their own changing bodies. It's dizzying and confounding at the same time, leaving Lizzie to struggle with strange dreams and the nagging thought: "I know this, I know this. But it is gone before I can wrap my head around it."

Then, days before they are to graduate from eighth grade, Evie disappears. Everyone turns to Lizzie, naturally, for answers. Lizzie tells them she knows nothing, which feels like the truth and lying at the same time. Shouldn't she know through her bone-deep friendship with Evie what happened to her? Can she piece together the truth from the dreamy conversations, childish speculations and secrets the two girls shared — or, perhaps more important, didn't?

Evie's wrenching loss draws Lizzie into the role of intrepid sleuth, mining her memories for conversation with Evie, every moment they spent together, looking for clues that could explain her disappearance. In the process, Lizzie unearths scraps of observation, some of which she shares with the police, some of which she bravely pursues on her own. In the process, Lizzie realizes she didn't know as much about Evie or the seemingly perfect Verver household as she thought, nor about the notions of love and romance that had filled her own girlish head.

"The End of Everything" is charged throughout with adolescent longing, inchoate desires and the consequences that its characters cannot begin to fathom, even after the crime is solved. It marks a major departure for Abbott, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize nominee ("Bury Me Deep") whose previous books are noir-infused L.A. crime novels set in the 1930s through the 1950s. Her latest effort, a mesmerizing psychological thriller and a freshly imagined coming-of-age story, will draw comparisons to "The Lovely Bones" even as it asks new questions about the factors influencing child abduction and our continuing fascination with it.

Woods is the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.

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