Private schools, with their air of privilege, have provided rich terrain for more than a few authors. Maine novelist Jan Elizabeth Watson adds an edgy tale to the mix with her new thriller, “What Has Become of You.” This story-within-a-story will leave readers wondering whether adolescence is a stage of life or an altered state, with dire consequences.
As the novel opens, we meet fretful 39-year-old Vera Lundy, a substitute English teacher who arrives midyear at the Wallace School. Her job is to teach “The Catcher in the Rye” to a class of sophomore girls, who are fixated on the mysterious deaths of two young students – one of them a classmate – in their rural Maine town.
In the class is bright, awkward and shy Jensen Willard, a 15-year-old scholarship student with a flair for writing. Much of the book takes place in written exchanges between these two lead characters – journal entries that Jensen writes on assignment, and teacherly responses from Vera.
In one sense, Watson has penned a modern-day epistolary novel whose characters reveal themselves through the written word. That Jensen’s writings grow increasingly long and provocative, dropping hints of distress, is not lost on Vera, who sees much of her troubled younger self in this odd and aloof girl. Indeed writing is a shared passion: Vera is a wannabe author of crime novels who is privately tracking the town’s unsolved murders.
This layering of similarities fosters an alliance of sorts between the two, and fuels the book’s ornate, often sinister, plot.
“When I first started teaching in February, when I first met you, you reminded me of myself when I was your age,” Vera says. “Maybe you sense that, too. Maybe that’s why you’ve written the journals for me to see. I don’t really know, Jensen; this is all just me guessing. I don’t know what you’re looking for from me, exactly, but I want to provide whatever it is you need.”
Watson is working multiple shifts here, creating a coming-of-age story and a series of grim murder mysteries; probing the psyche of two characters who are alike, yet different; and introducing a cast of distinctive supporting roles.
All the while, the iconic “Catcher” adds thematic weight and provides sundry clues to the mysteries at hand.
Watson navigates among these twisty venues with ease, achieving that elusive goal – the page-turner.
A few questions remain, however, about some of the author’s choices, especially in matters of credibility. If the character of Jensen as a cunning depressive with a shadowy streak seems wholly believable, Vera sometimes appears less so. She’s one of those smart adults with an Ivy league degree who can’t escape her own worst instincts and naivete.
In the end, Vera’s self-assessment – “It was only later in life that my immaturity cemented itself” – may pinpoint the problem. Candor and believability aren’t necessarily the same thing.
Readers may also find Vera’s insights at odds with some of her more extreme, misguided conduct. Then again, perhaps Watson is signaling that awareness is a double-edged sword, especially for those who are helpless to make use of it.
This intricate hair-raiser should appeal to a range of readers.
With its focus on teenagers and identity issues, and the use of “Catcher” as a metaphor, young adults are an obvious audience.
But adult readers will glean more than a thing or two from this tale of troubled minds and dark suggestibility.
If readers are suitably unsettled in the process and wary of “concerned” teachers who over-share with their students, then Watson will have accomplished her disturbing mission.
Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.