At the heart of every effective thriller lays an interesting premise, be it a mystery, event or what have you. The best of the best make readers keep turning pages long after they’d normally stop, because they’ve simply become unable to put the book down and need to find out what will happen next. Others, meanwhile, offer interesting premises and create the aura of a good mystery, but don’t do enough to grab the reader’s attention or become a memorable experience.
Unfortunately, R.J. Jacobs’ debut thriller, And Then You Were Gone, falls into the latter camp. While it has an interesting premise, it loses steam and isn’t as thought provoking or as addictive as others in its genre.
And Then You Were Gone begins on a nice autumn day in Tennessee, where Doctor Emily Firestone — a child psychologist — is described as being a passenger in a jeep driven by her boyfriend, Paolo. An immigrant from South America, Paolo is also in the medical field, but his job isn’t to help people deal with their mental health. In a strange twist of circumstances made possible by the author’s mind and fiction itself, the young man is actually a hardworking medical scientist, who spends most of his hours working on a vaccine for a deadly flu variant called H1-N24. Why is this a ‘strange’ and rather convenient twist of circumstances? Well, it just so happens that Emily’s father was the first American citizen to have come down with, dealt with and passed away from that very strain while working abroad in an attempt to help the less fortunate.
After approximately a year together, the two have managed to get away from their busy work lives in the city, in order to spend a relaxing night on a sailboat situated atop a quiet lake’s picturesque waters. Emily doesn’t swim due to past trauma, but has decided to do her best to face her fears in order to have a good night. Meanwhile, Paolo is an excellent swimmer, who shows that when he helps a family whose keys have dropped to the bottom of the deep lake.
Unfortunately for the couple, something happens in the middle of the night that leaves Paolo missing and Emily suspected of his murder. Did she do it? Or is something else afoot? Such is the mystery you’ll uncover as you read through this novel’s approximately 275 pages.
When I was asked to review this book, I couldn’t remember having heard about it before. Its premise sounded interesting, though, and I’m always looking for good books within the thriller and horror genres, as they tend to be my favourites. So, I said yes and ended up making my way through this story over the course of approximately three days. Books normally take me longer to read, but I had a lot of free time on my hands and, since I wasn’t exactly loving this novel after starting it, I decided to read through it quickly.
I wish that I could say that I loved this thing, because I really don’t like crapping on things that people have put a lot of hard work into, but I can’t. At best, And Then You Were Gone is a mediocre and slightly interesting thriller, which possesses an internal mystery that is ultimately pretty predictable. It likes to throw red herrings out, but I had parts of its ending guessed early on.
Doctor Emily Firestone (whose name always felt so fake and inorganic) is a relatively interesting main character, but the book she finds herself in doesn’t allow her to shine. One thing it does do pretty well, though, is depict her mental illness, which is classified as bipolar. Throughout the story, Emily struggles with doubt, fatigue, mania, poor sleep and thoughts about whether or not things are actually happening as she perceives them, not to mention some paranoia. Her symptoms could have had more depth and affected things more, but I appreciate the author’s efforts to make them believable. Our society tends to look down on mental illnesses and those who suffer from them, and so many books use them as lazily crafted scapegoats instead of making them feel real.
Of course, it surely helped that author R.J. Jacobs is a psychologist, himself.
And Then You Were Gone started off relatively well and had me intrigued, but it spent so much time meandering in-between its beginning and ending that it started to both drag and become somewhat boring. Sure, there were interesting moments, but little about this thing actually felt original. While reading it, I always kind of felt like I’d read it all before, and was disappointed that there wasn’t more creativity to the story or ending. The stuff about the vaccine was new to me, but the way everything unraveled made the book feel like an average thriller at best. And, as with many average or below average thrillers, parts were quite unbelievable.
That said, the writing was pretty good. There were a few minor mistakes (like Emily’s age being listed as 10 years old when her father died just before she was described as an eight year old on the very same page), but the grammar and sentence structure were both pretty solid. It’s not the best written book I’ve ever read, but is solid in that category, especially for a debut.
In conclusion, And Then You Were Gone is the type of novel that might hold your interest for a few to several hours, but won’t set your world on fire. It’s something that could be taken on vacation, read in spurts and then passed on to someone else, but isn’t a must read. I wish that I could say better things about it, but while I hoped to be pleasantly surprised by its tale, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed.
**This review is based on a copy of the novel that we were provided with.**