Title: What She Left Behind
Author: Tracy Bilen
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release date: May 1st 2012
Genre: Conemporary YA; mystery
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Sara and her mom have a plan to finally escape Sara’s abusive father. But when her mom doesn’t show up as expected, Sara’s terrified. Her father says that she’s on a business trip, but Sara knows he’s lying. Her mom is missing—and her dad had something to do with it. Each day that passes, Sara’s more on edge. Her friends know that something’s wrong, but she won’t endanger anyone else with her secret. And with her dad growing increasingly violent, Sara must figure out what happened to her mom before it’s too late…for them both.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
While reading the book, I really liked What She Left Behind. The mystery aspect is really well done, and I enjoyed trying to figure out what happened alongside Sara. Especially the last 50 pages or so are gripping - the suspense is so high, I couldn't put the book down. If you look at What She Left Behind as a mystery, it's a very good book. It had me terrified, like a good mystery should.
Sara's dad is a total psychopath. The physical abuse he puts his family through is so strong it's scary, but what really terrified me is the mental aspect - he is completely crazy. Sara's brother Matt died a few months ago, but the dad basically pretends (or really believes?) that Matt is still alive. He talks about him as if he were still there, he gets mad when Matt isn't home for dinner or when the chore he told Sara Matt should do doesn't get done. And he expects the rest of his family to pretend, too - it's gotten routine that the father asks why Matt isn't home for dinner, and Sara tells him he's at play practice, or whatever Matt would have been doing that day if he were still alive. When someone doesn't play along, he gets even more violent. And that's just one example - Sara's dad is a delusional psychopath, and he is terrifying.
But even though I liked the mystery and thought that the dad's character was very well-written, something about this book didn't sit right with me. I think it's how much it focuses on the mystery, the violence and the thrill, instead of discussing the issue of domestic abuse. I'm not saying it should have been preachy or anything like that - of course not every book needs to have a strong message to be a good book. But I think because of the focus on the mystery, the emotional aspect falls short. Books dealing with abuse are really interesting to me - it's fascinating to get into the mind of someone who's being abused, to try to understand why they don't leave the abuser or go to the police. And that part isn't really addressed in What She Left Behind - it's set after Sara and her mom decide to leave, so it makes sense we don't get as much insight into why they wouldn't leave, but I still would have liked to know some more about what made them stay all those years. What She Left Behind is really just the story of Sara trying to save herself and her mother from her father - not the story of dealing with the emotional aspect of abuse.
I also didn't like the romance. It's a classic case of insta-love. Even though Sara's mom is missing, she immediately falls for Alex, the bad boy/football player, when he starts persuing her, for whatever reason. This, along with the dreaded 'I think I'm in love with you' three days after their first conversation, had me rolling my eyes at any scene that included Alex. Not to forget that this romance is developing while Sara is under duress because her mother is missing and her father is growing even more violent.
The thing we discover about Matt towards the end seemed kind of random to me. I don't want to spoil anything, but I just didn't see the point of that revelation, or how that made any difference in Sara's grieving process.
If you're looking for a thrill and a good mystery, I do recommend What She Left Behind. But if you go into it expecting a story about domestic abuse and what it means for the victims, like I did, you will be disappointed - the complete lack of emotion or emotional development concerning both her abusive father and Sara grieving her brother ruined that aspect for me.