Book Review : Joe Clifford - The One That Got Away (2018)
American author Gillian Flynn started something with her novel Gone Girl, in 2012. It was turned into a (good) movie by none other than David Fincher two years later and suddenly, readers couldn’t get enough of mysteries featuring troublesome female protagonist that weren’t conventionally empowered. Following in Flynn’s footsteps were Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, Jennifer Hillier’s Jar of Hearts and now, interestingly enough, mystery novelist Joe Clifford (an unapologetic Gillian Flynn fan) is taking a crack at it with The One That Got Away. And, believe it or not, he pulled it off. Again. *
The One That Got Away tells the story of Alex Salerno, a young woman who survived being abducted by serial killer twelve years ago. Without proper support, she couldn’t get her life together in the following years. She moved to New York and started working odd jobs to piece together a living that wouldn’t involve letting anyone in her life. Her life was flipped upside down again when she received a phone call to discuss the disappearance of Kira Shanks. She’s the girl who vanished after Alex. The one that made everybody forget about her. Could she make peace with the past if she found out what happened to Kira?
This novel does nothing like other small town mysteries. The protagonist is the girl that usually gets saved in the end. She had an adultery relationship with the cop who rescued her, which they both never got over. There’s no urgency to speak of since Kira Shanks disappeared seven years prior and Alex is the one putting herself in dangerous situations by asking tough questions to potentially dangerous people. The One That Got Away deconstructs just about every small town mystery stereotype you can think of and flips them on their head. It both feels familiar and unpredictable at the same time.
I’m not going to unpack Alex Salerno as a protagonist because many other critics will, but she’ll elicit powerful reactions from readers. I found myself speaking to her out loud a couple times like a concerned older brother throughout the novel **. No, the other variable that really stood out to me in The One That Got Away was the upstate New York setting. I call it “roadside America”. Cities you don’t need to acknowledge the existence of unless you turn off the highway to eat in their Arby’s or take a leak in their gas stations. Reine feels particularly alive and cohesive because it shapes the characters. Half of them are not working, others have dead end jobs and everyone’s sick of one another.
If there’s one thing about The One That Got Away was its occasional lack of nuance. Unsympathetic characters like the Brudzienski brothers and Sharn DiDonna *** are stereotypical villains more than they’re complex human beings. They’re a pile of character traits people conventionally dislike and you don’t really get a chance to understand their point of view. I wouldn’t normally mind, but Joe Clifford is so preternaturally good at crafting characters that these came off as contrived. Not sure if the alternate POV chapters worked either. But I might be nitpicking that. I could see people really getting into it.
The One That Got Away is another resounding success for Joe Clifford. It’s a hard book not to like, because it delivers a strong small town mystery while breaking most of the genre’s rules. It might’ve come up inches short of the Jay Porter novels for me, but what it lacked in sheer emotional power, it made up in technical mastery, clever plotting and bleak atmosphere. The One That Got Away is emotionally intense, which is going to scare some people away. It’s not exactly a beach read or escapist fun. But it’s the type of book that lingers with you long after you’re done and that you’ll end up recommending to everybody. Doesn’t that spell “holiday read” for you?
** I’m 36 years old and Alex is 29, so I’m technically old enough to be her older brother. So, I’m showing empathy here, I’m not being patronizing.
*** Who I really liked, despite his short appearance.