Reviewed by Becky Benoit
Growing up in small-town Saskatchewan, you know that not everything is as it seems. On the surface, life is placid, everyone has their established place in small-town society, and everyone gets along. But behind the Norman Rockwell-esque scenes of rural contentment, there were secrets.
In my town, these secrets were common knowledge, and yet even though everyone knew them and discussed them in murmurs and quiet whispers, they were never openly acknowledged. Secrets fuelled the fires of gossip at the coffee shop on quiet afternoons, but to outsiders, those just passing through town or newcomers, they were completely invisible. Only when something truly surprising or catastrophic did these secrets come to light. Everyone knows about them, everyone whispers about them, but no one openly acknowledges them until it’s absolutely necessary.
Such is the nature of the setting of Holly Goddard Jones’ latest, The Next Time You See Me. It’s not only a compelling story with a impeccable timing and engaging characters, it also captures the unique nature of small towns, looking past the pleasant and pastoral surface to the gritty underbelly that exists beneath.
Susanna Mitchell teaches junior high English in the small southern town of Roma. Married to the high school marching band coach, she’s dissatisfied with her job, her marriage and her life in general, but not enough to do anything about it. When she needs to vent about her distant and self-involved husband, she calls her sister Ronnie, a notoriously hard-partying personality well-known in the local bars and pool halls. The two have had a conflicted relationship, but that hasn’t stopped Susanna from developing a close bond with her troubled sister. When Ronnie disappears, no one else in town is worried, except Susanna, who knows deep down that something terrible has happened to her sister.
Emily Houchens is a student in Susanna’s class, and one of those kids who always seems to be the target of cruel jokes and nasty pranks. Emily’s latest tormentor is a handsome newcomer to the junior high school, Christopher Shelton. In only a few weeks, he has managed to fit in with seamlessly with the most popular kids in school, something Emily can only watch with envy as she nurses a secret crush on the boy. When Emily unwittingly makes herself a target for Christopher and his friends, she decides that the only thing which might change his mind about her is the secret she’s discovered deep in the woods…
Not far across town, bullying of a different sort is playing out. At one of the local factories, Wyatt Powell has worked his same job, following his same daily routine, for years. A loner by nature, Wyatt is content enough getting up every morning, eating the same breakfast, heading off to the same mundane, low-paying job. But when a crew of young men is hired at the plant, and Wyatt finds himself the butt of their cruelty, long-hidden resentments start bubbling to the surface.
When the lives of these troubled townspeople come together, buried secrets begin to emerge. Ugly truths are revealed, terrible inner compulsions come bubbling to light, and the placid surface of small-town life is forever changed and disrupted as the truth about what really happened to Ronnie is revealed.
Goddard Jones paints a gritty but startling real portrait of small town life, a reality far removed from the quaint images on calendars and postcards. Her characters are flawed and human enough to evoke real empathy in the reader, and the pace of her narrative is quick enough to keep you flipping pages right to the end. A great addition to your list of summer reads!