“If I Die Tonight” by Alison Gaylin brings psychological suspense stories to a whole new level. The focus of the plot emphasizes the relationship between parents and children and how social media plays a role. The I-GEN generation characters that keep secrets and isolate themselves, allow readers to realize it is sometimes impossible for parents to really know their children.
The plot begins with Wade, a teenager’s suicide note, and then flashes back five days and unfolds from the perspectives of Jackie, Connor, Pearl and Amy Nathanson. Amy files a police report claiming that she was carjacked by a teenage boy. Another boy, Liam, rushes to help and is hit by the car.
The case quickly consumes social media, transforming Liam, a local high school football star, into a folk hero, and the suspect, a high school outcast named Wade Reed, into a depraved would-be killer. His mother, Jackie, and brother Connor are convinced Wade is innocent but must face their own life changes as they too are seen as pariahs.
Gaylin has the uncanny ability to develop likable and dysfunctional characters. A shining character in the story is police officer Pearl Maze. She has problems that must be worked out with her father. But as a cop, she is very astute at realizing there is more to the crime than meets the eye and she is a great judge of personality. Suspense ratchets up as Pearl tries to figure out if Wade is innocent or guilty.
Readers might not see the last of Pearl since Gaylin is thinking of writing a Pearl novella.
“I can definitely see a possibility of doing a series with her,” Gaylin said. “I wrote her backstory because I’ve always been haunted by the stories I’ve read about toddlers picking up guns and accidentally killing a parent, wondering about what effect that would have on the child. In writing Pearl, I saw an opportunity to introduce that idea. She describes herself as, ‘a murderer before she could even read.’ I imagined what toll that could take on an otherwise level-headed person. Pearl is a complicated young woman who tends to isolate herself from others. Overall, she is a basically good and moral person and a keen judge of character.”
Jackie Reed, a single mother of two teenage boys, loves and embraces them, always believing in them. Her sons Wade and Connor alternate between being the older wiser brother and the dependent one; even though Connor is the thirteen-year-old and Wade is seventeen. They rely on each other for stability and support and want to protect one another.
“Secrets. I write about secrets in most of my books,” Gaylin said. “We really do not fully know someone. There are characters in this book who are willing to let others go down just to make sure their secret does not get out. What I like to do when I start writing is to find out everyone’s secrets. In this book, I felt for Jackie because I am also the parent of teenage children. I love writing a twisting plot, but this is probably my most character-driven novel. A lot of the twists come out of characters lying to each other and to themselves.”
Also, a character in the story is social media. It creates fake news, victims, and heroes, and allows everyone to keep secrets and manipulate those around them. What should scare people the most is how it can destroy when instantaneous posts become permanent.
This engaging tale stresses family relationships and the role of social media in society today. As with her other books, Gaylin takes readers on an emotional roller coaster ride with her many twists.