“What Remains Of Me” by Alison Gaylin is a captivating story. The bestselling author Jeffery Deaver once said, “A thriller asks what is going to happen and a mystery asks what happened.” In this spellbinding story, Gaylin does both through her character Kelly Lund, portraying her as a teenager and a woman in her 40s. There are multiple themes explored including the effect of secrets, how money and power corrupt, as well as how the media frenzy attempts to put a persona on a celebrity. These are all wonderfully intertwined throughout this story about the world of Hollywood.
The plot alternates between two murders, with the suspect being the same person, Kelly Lund. In 1980, as a seventeen year old, she is found guilty of killing director John McFadden. Released after twenty-five years, she attempts to maintain a low profile until five years later when she is again suspected of murdering her father-in-law, a legendary actor, Sterling Marshall.
Readers are shown the circus surrounding the coverage of a famous murderer, and are reminded of the O.J. Simpson and Charles Manson cases. In this story, the media casts Kelly in a role that becomes reality to the outsiders. As one of the characters in the book says, “It’s not what you’ve done that matters, it’s what people think you’ve done.” As the plot progresses, readers are able to understand the dark secrets, lies, and betrayals caused by power and money.
The power of the press is explored because Gaylin wants readers to understand, “The press can be as unreliable as anyone else. It is impossible to get to know someone from an article. A sense of that person is colored by the writer’s perception of that person. Facts as they are presented are many times different than facts as they are. This distortion is definitely true in high profile trials. We can never truly know our public figures. Just look at Marcia Clark, the Simpson prosecutor. She became well known in a murder case where a young actress was shot by an obsessed fan. She helped establish the anti-stalking laws. But after the O.J. case she became known as the lady with funny hair who botched the case. A lot of the Hollywood aspect is larger than life. BTW: Clark is now a terrific mystery writer. On the other side is Amanda Knox. The press created a persona of her because she didn’t act according to some prescribed script. That story inspired me. If your exterior isn’t viewed as likable, or if you don’t seem as contrite as people think you ought to be, a narrative builds up around you, and you become a ‘monster.’”
Even though all the characters are dysfunctional, Gaylin does a good job of showing the reasons behind their faults and personalities. Kelly and her friend Bellamy Marshall become more likeable as the story progresses. In many ways they both had rough lives, having faced some very bad knocks. They attempt to hide their true feelings, and become almost compartmentalized with their emotions. In understanding these two characters the fairy tale The Prince and The Pauper comes to mind. Both Kelly and Bellamy envy what the other supposedly has. Kelly searches to replace her twin sister Catherine who died and Bellamy wants her to be the sibling sister she never had. Each looked upon the other’s life and thought how that life could be better than their own.
Regarding her character Kelly, Gaylin said, “Writing young and middle age Kelly was like writing two different characters. I try to figure out how every character justifies their actions. She was affected by her twenty-five years in prison, and the loss of her twin sister. I think it stunted her and hardened her. I hope readers will develop some understanding of her. She as well as the other characters went down the wrong path. I wanted to write a story about someone very young and somewhat naïve who was accused of committing a murder. She was definitely convicted in the court of public opinion with people misconstruing what she said and how she acted.”
The only character that seems to have some semblance of being grounded is known as Rocky Three. He becomes Kelly’s confidant and someone she can believe in, a friend who offers tenderness, compassion, and truthfulness. The direct opposite of Rocky is the narcissist John McFadden, a truly evil person who uses his power to prey on young girls. This is brought home with the powerful quote, “You ever wish you were a little kid again…too little to understand how the world works?” Readers begin to understand that many children in the Hollywood scene grow up way too fast, and begin to realize that the world is not always a nice place.
Anyone fascinated with Hollywood and true crimes needs to read “What Remains Of Me.” Gaylin uses her journalistic credentials to have the plot and the characters come alive. This emotional, dark, and distinctive tale of revenge and betrayal, presumed guilt and innocence lost, will have the readers quickly turning the pages.