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Lost and Found Memories

The Father She Went to Find: A novel by Carter Wilson

Book review by Geoffrey Dutton

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Poisoned Pen Press
April 02, 2024
448 pages
List price $15.80


Note: Features spoilers here and there

Found this novel via an ad on a publicist’s website. Though I had never heard of Carter Wilson, this is his 9th crime thriller. Most of his others have drawn massive praise from reviewers, and he has expanded his franchise to a podcast in which he interviews other writers, and workshops in various locales. I admire his entrepreneurship, perhaps with a tinge of jealousy. So I listened to some podcast interviews and signed up for his newsletter, hoping some of his success would rub off on me.

Penny Bly has just turned 21. Her life thus far has not been especially dramatic; she lives with her bitter, alcoholic mother in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and for the past 14 years or so has spent her days being tutored and studied by researchers in a place called the Willow Brook Institute for the Mind.

She’s a “savant,” one of a handful of individuals on the planet with total recall — able to remember every sentence she’s read, every meal she’s eaten, and every face she’s seen. This ability emerged when she awoke from a coma after, at age seven, falling down the stairs. (Or was she pushed? that and little else that happened to her before it she cannot recall).

The novel is written from Penny’s point of view, in present tense. Wilson’s initial draft was in third-person past tense. In a recent newsletter, he said that wasn’t working: “The problem was I overthought it. My protagonist, Penny Bly, was a 21-year-old female with acquired savant syndrome, and I reasoned that I couldn’t possibly get close enough to this character to write her from a first-person present perspective. Not only was I wrong in assuming that, but I actively chose a path that didn’t feel natural to me as a writer.”

And so, chapter-by-chapter, he rewrote it from Penny’s POV, and in my opinion it works very well. Penny is very smart and introspective, evaluating her life and what she wants from it. Most of all, she wants to find her (nameless) father, who abandoned her and her (nameless) mother when she was comatose, causing her mother to sink into an alcohol haze and treat Penny with undeserved contempt. Penny’s only family connection has come in the form of warm but terse greeting cards her father sends on her birthday from various locations out west. His latest birthday card says it will be the last one she will receive from him. Penny is devastated.

That same day, her birthday, Penny’s longtime therapist, Dr. Brock, phones her to abruptly reveal that he’s taken a new position and has moved to D.C., and that her new therapist will be a doctor from the institute whom she doesn’t know. That, on top of the kiss-off from her dad, cause Penny to decide to get the hell away. She hoists her backpack and sets off on a wild adventure to track down her father at the return address of the birthday card, Westlake Village, California. The rest of the book follows her harrowing trip there, as Penny quickly learns how to drive a borrowed car through hostile territory, full of calamitous and near-death experiences. (Penny has this weird habit of visualizing how she will die, picking a different scenario each time.)

One could call this a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, as well as a crime or suspense novel. In fact, its protagonist’s surname (Bly) may be a nod to poet Robert Bly and his influential nonfiction book Iron John that exhumes the mythic roots of the “hero’s journey” needed to become a man among men. In choosing to leave the chaos of her home and the security of her institute, Penny seeks to find not just her father, but herself. Early on, she’s befriended by a 19-year-old high school dropout named Travis, who lets her crash at his parents’ house and then offers to drive her to wherever she’s going in his old VW. He’s an aimless but decent pot-smoking youth who is impressed by her ability to draw uncanny portraits of people from memory. (This talent for capturing individuals’ essence with pen and paper is one of her gifts.)

After a life-threatening encounter with hoodlums in Minneapolis, Travis disappears, and Penny flees westward in his car, never having driven one before. Soon the car is no more, and in a small Minnesota town, Penny searches for the owner of a diner whom she overheard one of the hoodlums say he will execute. The owner, a Nicaraguan immigrant named Fia, is suspicious of Penny, but when the hoods turn up quickly realizes she has to scram, and sets off with Penny in her car. By this point, Travis has tracked down Penny and the three of them flee the assassins pursuing Fia.

I won’t divulge any more except to say that they do manage to make it to Westlake Village California, where Penny is in for a big surprise. She’s disappointed, but finds closure, and decides to stay with Travis as she travels on to her destiny — setting the stage, I’m guessing, for a sequel.

The novel has some minor logical inconsistencies and improbabilities, nothing critical. But I was sometimes confounded by characters’ voices, such as the Nicarguan hood named Sebastien, who has good manners and speaks English like a college graduate. I found him more polished than believable. Fia, too, is also more articulate than I would expect. (Wilson mostly refrains from using dialect, any more of which would have made the writing harder.)

Then there is dear old Dad, with whom Penny has many, sometimes long-winded, conversations in her head. Quite a few of the novel’s 124 brief chapters (some a page or two long, often just part of a scene) include or consist of these imaginary dialogs, usually in the midst of self doubt or some crisis. Her father’s voice is kind, caring, even comforting, but so many pages are given over to their discussions that one wonders if Penny is psychotic. Wilson uses Dad as a device to recount events from her childhood, not all of which have much to do with the plot (only one matters: what happened the night she fell down the stairs). He also advises her on what she ought to do next, and seems to have a better grasp on her predicament than Penny does. And despite her resentment about him skipping out on the family when she was lying unconscious, she clings to him like a security blanket.

And while I found these interior dialogs overdone, Penny’s sense of herself, her confusions and self-doubting, while also a bit repetitious, made her real to me. Her first-person present voice, motivations, and the risks she takes all seem in character, even though I never thought a young woman confined to an institution would be able to handle all that.

The Father She Went to Find will take you on a wild ride through middle America, though much of it blurs by in the rear-view mirror. And it keeps you rooting for Penny and her pals despite their missteps, especially at the climax, where Penny faces being taken captive. I even felt sorry for those Nicaraguan hoodlums. Now that’s a neat trick. Thank you, Carter Wilson.

Published inBook ReviewfictionPsychology

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