The Never List. By Koethi Zan. Pamela Dorman/Viking. $27.95.
Sometimes the formulas work. The Never List is a predictable thriller on which readers will look back with the realization that they could have figured out pretty much every major plot point in advance if they had thought carefully about what was going on. But while reading the book, most won’t figure out the answers, because debut novelist Koethi Zan knows how to keep the plot moving, the dialogue sharp, and the revelations coming at just the right page-turning pace. Most readers will simply be too involved in the story to realize the extent to which they are being manipulated on every page.
Zan’s manipulative skill may come from the 15 years she spent practicing law; her sure sense of theatricality may come from the venues in which she practiced it, which included film, theater and television. The title of her novel refers to a list of things that two super-cautious teenage best friends, Sarah and Jennifer, create after a car crash in which Jennifer’s mother is killed. The items on the list are exactly the sort of parental guidance that teens are usually assumed to scoff at, from “never ignore your gut” to “never leave your drink unattended,” “never look vulnerable or lost,” “never panic,” “never get in the car – even if they have a gun,” and so forth. There would be no book if the young women actually followed the list, of course, so the story is about the horrendous things that happen to them when once, just once, they fail to pay attention and tempt fate the slightest bit. They are captured, imprisoned along with two other women, held captive in a cellar for three years, and tortured by a sadist. Their captor is eventually caught and imprisoned, but 10 years later, he is up for parole, and Sarah finds herself reliving the trauma as she tries to find out what happened to Jennifer – for when the women were rescued, there were only three of them: Jennifer never made it out of the cellar.
It is pretty easy to see where all this is going, and that is exactly where it goes. Sarah, now 31, will be forced, bit by bit, to re-create what was done to her and live through the horrors again and again as she tries to get to the bottom of what happened to Jennifer and make sure that Jack Derber, their abductor, never gets out of prison. She will re-connect with the other women from the cellar – all of whom will be reluctant to have anything to do with each other after going their separate ways and trying to rebuild their separate lives. She will learn things about herself, including some she has repressed and desperately does not want to know. And there will eventually be a major, surprising twist that will knit all the loose ends together and provide readers with the shock ending that is de rigueur in genre books like this one.
Zan drops plenty of hints about things that will turn out to be not what they seem on the surface, and in fact drops them rather clumsily, as when Sarah goes to visit a religious organization, where she encounters two young administrators who “were clean-cut and eager. This didn’t seem like a cult at all. More like a YMCA. I felt my anxiety lifting. …The young man looked up at me and smiled. He seemed perfectly normal, except for a glint of heightened zeal in his eyes that made me a little uncomfortable.” Umm…yes…remember “never ignore your gut”? And how about a new Never List item, such as “watch out for overly normal seeming but really creepy pseudo-religious organizations and the people in them”? In some ways, Sarah has learned exactly nothing from the horrors she endured more than a decade before the book takes place.
In other ways, though, she has learned a lot, about resilience and self-reliance and facing fears (although she has not learned too much about that, as becomes clear in a late scene where she panics while with one of the other women with whom she was held captive). Sarah is determined and gutsy and bold – to the extent that her damaged psyche allows – and sees things more clearly than the medical and law-enforcement people who are supposed to be the experts in what is and was going on. All these characteristics are absolutely to be expected in the protagonist of a genre book like this. It is to Zan’s credit that Sarah seems more fully formed as a character than might be expected, with the book’s frantic pace smoothing over many of Sarah’s (and the plot’s) rough edges – or at least making them easy to ignore. The eventual climax will not surprise anyone who has seen the wholly typical sadism movies of recent years – Saw and its imitators, for example – but it is handled well enough, and cinematically enough, to provide a satisfying conclusion for a story that largely makes up in intensity for what it lacks in creativity and originality.
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