Two recent novels, published within a month of each other, feature characters putting their lives back together in the aftermath of a mass shooting. Oddly and coincidentally, the inciting incidents of both take place in a Maine shopping mall (though not at the Maine Mall).

“Shelter in Place” is a romantic thriller written by perennial New York Times bestselling author Nora Roberts. Elise Juska’s “If We Had Known” is a campus literary novel with a strong, ripped-from-the-headlines narrative hook.

Gun violence is too often part of the national news feed, inspiring heated discourse seemingly around the clock. Roberts’s and Juska’s books sidestep the arguments for or against gun control. Rather, both novels suggest that the path through trauma demands human connection and commitment to family.

“Shelter in Place” opens at the fictional DownEast Mall near Portland, where four young shooters indiscriminately fire at shoppers, diners and movie-goers. High school senior Simone Knox hides in a bathroom but manages to be the first to reach the police by phone. Although all four gunmen are killed, one of Simone’s closest friends is fatally wounded, another critically injured.

Also among the survivors is Reed Quartermaine, who protects a young child during the shooting. Years later, he becomes a police officer and eventually moves to Tranquility Island, where Simone and her grandmother also live. As they start their romance, Simone and Reed struggle with their memories of that day at the DownEast Mall. Meanwhile, a malevolent presence revisits the tragedy, murdering survivors and targeting those thought to have profited somehow from the massacre. Simone and Reed are both on the killer’s list.

Elise Juska

Elise Juska, author of “The Blessings,” takes a different tack on a similar, but less sensational, scenario in “If We Had Known.” She eschews any scenes at the mall (located in “Reed,” supposedly near Lewiston), showing instead how the impact of an act of violence can reach far beyond its point of origin.


When Central Maine State University English professor Maggie Daley hears the news of the shooting, she is busy getting her daughter ready for her first day of college out of state. When Maggie learns that the killer was Nathan Dugan, one of her former students from four years ago, she recalls his mostly silent demeanor and general air of oddness.

Juska writes: “She remembered how, if he spoke, which was rare, Nathan never raised his hand. He’d called her Mrs. Daley, even though she always told students to call her Maggie. She remembered his essays too – not the content so much as the look of them, long unbroken paragraphs and small, stifled font.”

Fellow students claim to have been disturbed by an essay he submitted to the class, which dealt with hunting and guns. A Facebook post about Dugan from another student goes viral, and soon Maggie, under fire for supposedly not having seen a crucial red flag, finds herself making terrible decisions in the glare of online and in-person criticism.

Other chapters of “If We Had Known” focus on Maggie’s daughter, Anna, negotiating her first semester of college and plagued by anxiety as she gets caught up in the growing controversy surrounding her mother. The point-of-view also shifts to other peripheral characters, including Nathan Dugan’s mother and the wife of Maggie’s lover, as well as Luke Finch, the author of the viral Facebook post.

Both books are highly readable – carefully paced, rendered in lively prose and supporting a handful of interesting subplots.

Neither novel is overtly political. No one says much about the Second Amendment or lobbies for stricter gun control.


Under her own name and as J.D. Robb, Roberts has written hundreds of novels but lately her output seems to be more ambitious in scope. With its hidden and manipulative antagonist, “Shelter in Place” might remind some readers of Stephen King’s “Mr. Mercedes.” The book mostly delivers on what it promises, namely an engaging love story complicated by a clever serial killer plot.

Nora Roberts

“Shelter in Place” is a decent title for a thriller, but it seems here to have a second, more domestic meaning. Roberts spends a lot of time chronicling Reed’s purchase, repair and furnishing of a seaside home. In a straight-ahead thriller, those details might seem superfluous, but this is partly a romance novel, the purpose of which is to spotlight a couple’s tribulations as they move toward cohabitation and marriage.

Juska constructs “If We Had Known” with intelligence, sensitivity and less of an eye for furnishings, digging deep into her characterizations and settings. She depicts an uncomfortable mother/daughter dynamic, two intelligent women coming undone in very particular ways but eventually finding the courage to face their fears together and on their own.

In “Shelter in Place,” Simone relies on friends, Reed and her own inner strength to make a better life for herself, and Roberts’ treats her emotional journey with the respect it deserves.

For all the build-up, however, in ‘Shelter in Place” the final confrontation between the villain, Simone and Reed feels anticlimactic, so quick that one might miss it during a rapid turn of the page.

“If We Had Known” has a more nuanced ending that allows Maggie and Anna to find some kind of acceptance. Juska offers few clues about the motivations of Nathan Dugan, which is exactly the correct choice given how few real-life incidents like this offer clear-cut answers. Juska also critiques the lure of social media, clearly and smartly depicting its potential for unthinking destructiveness.


Neither Roberts nor Juska overplays the Down East setting. They get enough details right to maintain plausibility, but they don’t clutter their prose with local references or make any obviously embarrassing blunders.

With their unfortunately timely subject matter, “Shelter in Place”and “If We Had Known,” taken separately or together, make for lively and thoughtful summer reading.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: mlberry

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