Saturday, August 18, 2018

Trust Me by Hank Phillippi Ryan: Reading Room Reviw

For those of us who remember the 1974 film Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, there is an unforgettable scene in this noir mystery movie where Nicolson’s character is asking Dunaway’s character about the identity of a young woman. While getting angrier and angrier, Nicholson demands the truth and Dunaway alternates between his slaps saying, “my daughter, my sister, my daughter, my sister.” And, as it turns out, both are true, as the truth is often a slippery mesh of realities. In Hank Phillippi Ryan’s new book Trust Me, who to trust as the teller of truth is just as much of a twisted road as Faye Dunaway’s revelation, and its revelation is just as surprising. As that movie scene is unforgettable, so is Ryan’s Trust Me. And, Trust Me is a story that would and quite probably will make a thrilling movie, too, following in the footsteps of recent other best selling (yes, of course it will be a best seller) books, such as Gone Girl or Girl on a Train. It’s just that compelling, actually more compelling for me than either of those. Ryan’s previous novels have all been favorite reads, but Trust Me is the rocket that shoots for the moon and solidly sticks a most memorable landing. 

Life has been a matter of bare existence for Mercer Hennessy since the death of her husband Dex and three-year-old daughter Sophie in a tragic car accident fourteen months ago. Each day begins with Mercer writing the number of days her family has been gone on the steamed mirror after her shower. It keeps her connected to them in her mind and heart, like a promise that no matter how many days pass, she will always love and remember them. The enormity of her grief is on display throughout the book, with her thoughts of her husband never giving her another gift as she holds a rock he gave her and of Sophie never turning four. The pain is palatable, and Ryan makes it so through her brilliantly written words. 

Still in mourning for the family and life she loved, Mercer desperately needs something to get up for each morning, besides her counting ritual in the mirror. That something comes in connection to another tragedy. “Baby Boston” was the name given to an unidentified toddler found dead in a garbage bag on the shores of Boston Harbor. After identification was made, the mother of the child is now on trial for two-year old Tasha Nicole’s murder. Mercer has been keeping up with the case and is enraged at the actions of the mother, Ashlyn Bryant, whom Mercer knows is guilty. So, when Mercer’s friend and editor Katherine Craft calls proposing and cajoling that Mercer write a narrative non-fiction book, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, about the trial and the murder, it seems an important and worthwhile endeavor as a tribute “to every little girl unfairly wrenched away from the world,” including her Sophie. Mercer agrees to watch the trial remotely from a feed set up in her home and to the quick deadline of having the book finished two weeks after the trial closes. The feeling that the book is somehow for her husband and daughter fuels her energy to work and show the guilt of the monster mother Ashlynn.

It’s a lonely, solitary existence in watching the trial on the special equipment Katherine has supplied instead of attending the court sessions, but Mercer prefers it that way. Waiting for each session to start a male voice from the broadcast announces how long it will be until court is in session and information about delays. Mercer latches onto this voice, “the voice,” as a sort of companion in her solitude. She appreciates that it even seems to have a personality and a sense of humor. It is a steadying force for the gruesome details that she is faced with during the trial. It’s up to the prosecuting attorney to get the jury to trust him and the state’s version of what happened, and Mercer thinks the prosecutor is doing a good job of that. Mercer’s writing is going well, and she is sure that people won’t soon forget the mother who killed her own child. In fact, Mercer’s book will ensure that Ashlyn Bryant lives in infamy.

But, Mercer discovers that Ashlyn Bryant and the truth are more complicated than a simple verdict can convey. The two mothers who have both lost their young daughters will become entangled in a high stakes game of gaining the other’s trust so that the truth can come out. Nothing could have prepared Mercer for this aftermath of the trial. Everything she believed and believes about her life is turned upside down, as she learns that truth manipulated for any reason, good or bad, is truth denied. Trying to discern what is manipulation and what you can trust will prove a psychological battle that will cost one woman the place in the world she thought as hers.

Ryan’s ability to create complex, interesting characters is quite evident in all her novels, but in Trust Me, she reaches a bit beyond the norm of characters by including the understated “voice.” “The voice” adds an unbiased touch of relief humor and calm. Trust Me is chock full of great characters, and while you might not like Ashlyn, you will be riveted by her complexity of story. Since Mercer Hennessey is the lone narrator, it is through her interpretation of the truth we come to know the other characters, and her doubts and fears become the reader’s. The mantra of “trust me” runs throughout the book, different characters asking another one to “trust me” that I am the bearer of the truth, and Mercer certainly is confronted with that phrase from characters with different agendas. How often we hear that phrase in life, a promise that what has been said is the absolute truth. But is there an absolute truth? As Mercer reflects, “Maybe we never know that truth, since it’s so inescapably transformed by our own point of view.” 

I was fortunate to receive an advanced reading copy of this book from Hank Phillippi Ryan, but you can “trust me” that I’ll be buying a hard copy, too.

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