The Never List by Koethi Zan (Viking, July 16th, 2013)-It’s been 10 years since Caroline (now Sarah) escaped from Jack Derber’s basement of horrors, where she spent 3 years. She’s gotten her degree and is now ensconced in her tidy little New York City apartment, where she can order in, and the doorman, Bob, screens for any unwanted visitors. Plus, there are lots of people in New York, lots of people to hear you scream. A wrench is about to be thrown into her little construct of a life, however, in the form of Jack’s parole hearing. Caroline reasons that the likelihood of him getting out is very low, but it’s there, and she needs to be on hand to testify. 10 years isn’t enough for what Jack did to her, and it’s sure not enough for what she’s sure he did to her best friend, Jennifer, whose body was never recovered and whose death they never managed to charge him for.
Unfortunately, things didn’t quite end when Jack went to jail. He’s been sending taunting little letters to Caroline. In fact, he’s been sending them to Tracy and Christine too, who were the other two girls that Caroline and Jennifer were trapped with. Caroline is convinced they hold the clues to Jennifer’s fate, and she’s determined to find her body and make sure Jack never gets out of prison, but she’s going to need help. She manages to enlist the help of Tracy, who isn’t Caroline’s biggest fan, and against the advice of the agent responsible for Jack’s prosecution, they set out to follow the trail that Jack has left in his letters, as well as the woman he married in jail, but it may lead them right back to the very terror they narrowly escaped from so many years ago.
I seem to have had really good luck with books lately. Recently it was the absolutely superb Night Film by Marisha Pessl, and following that up with The Never List was like the cherry on top of a particularly creepy hot fudge sundae. The Never List is narrated by Caroline, and while she does give us glimpses into some of the things that happened in that basement, for those of you that are squeamish, the author spares us any gory details, which I think was a wise move and actually added to the overwhelming creepiness of the story. There is something to be said about leaving some things to the imagination. While the book is certainly about a charming madman, a professor who enchants his students in the classroom and abducts young women out of it, it’s really about Caroline and her coming to terms about the insular life she’s constructed for herself, and of her need to understand the why of what happened to her and the other girls. Caroline goes wayyy outside of her comfort zone during the investigation, and I found myself wincing a couple of times when they put themselves into some pretty dicey situations. Caroline is nothing if not determined though, and the fiery, brittle, and outspoken Tracy provides the perfect contrast to Caroline’s (in the beginning), timid, borderline OCD personality. In Tracy’s eyes, Caroline is a betrayer, and the author does explain why she thinks this, but don’t expect lots of hugs and smiles at the end of their journey together. They don’t become besties. Instead, there develops more of an understanding between them, of how the experience with Jack shaped them and ultimately made them who they are today.
Trust me, though, I thought I knew where this one was going more than a few times. I didn’t. The suspense is nearly unbearable, and the terror of their situation is very real, and it makes for an edge of your set reading experience. By the way, the Never List refers to the endless lists Caroline and Jennifer made as young girls in order to stave off all manner of bad things: Never leave the door unlocked, never get in a car with a stranger. You get the picture. Those are simplified, and their lists are extensive, and yet, it’s ironic that it’s their very caution that gets them abducted in the first place. You’ll root for Caroline and you’ll cringe at some of the situations she finds herself in, and the twists are stunning. You’ll definitely want to include The Never List in your summer must-read plans!