Miss Me When I’m Gone

Emily Arsenault

(William Morrow, $14.99, 384 pages).

Who is this author?

Emily Arsenault, who grew up in Cheshire, writes novels that revolve around murder mysteries, but go beyond that genre. The first, “The Broken Teaglass,” named a New York Times “notable mystery,” involved notes related to a killing hidden in files at an encyclopedia publisher’s office. The second, “In Search of the Rose Notes,” drew on a series of Time/Life books. Her latest novel quotes liberally from “Tammyland,” a fictional – but fascinating – book on the lives of female country singers. Arsenault, who was one of the high-school student “Fresh Voices” at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival in Farmington in 1994, is a ’98 Mount Holyoke College graduate, has been a teacher at Coventry High School and a children’s librarian at the Wilton Library and, with her husband, Ross Grant, a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa. They and their daughter now live in Shelburne Falls, MA.

What is this book about?

What we have here is a book within a book, and both are worth reading. When bestselling author Gretchen Waters dies from an apparent fall down the stone steps of a library, she leaves behind a memoir called “Tammyland,” known as a “honky-tonk “Eat, Pray, Love,” which deals her travels to learn all about such country music greats as Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton and their complicated lives. It’s also about Gretchen’s own complex life, including her divorce. She also leaves behind a pile of personal papers and a partly written new book, one that is about male country singers and also about the mysterious death of Gretchen’s biological mother, whose life story would itself have made a good country song. It falls to Jamie, Gretchen’s college roommate, now married and pregnant, to become her literary executor, but as she goes through the papers and manuscript, she begins to realize that Gretchen’s death, and her mother’s, assumed to be accidents, may have been no such thing, and she is driven to learn the truth.

Why you’ll like it:

Arsenault loves playing with multiple stories, whose hidden secrets are revealed in notes, diaries and books, finished and unfinished. While some reviewers (see Kirkus, below) found that technique a bit off-putting here, I found the excerpts from the fictional “Tammyland” to be insightful and fascinating, so much so that I’d happily read the whole book, if only it actually existed. “Miss Me” gives you many female characters: Jamie, Gretchen, her biological mother Shelly and the mother who raised her, Linda, along with other well-drawn women, as well as great portraits of Tammy, Dolly, Loretta and other country divas. The murder mystery is compelling, too, but you can enjoy this book just for the interesting women Arsenault has created.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Arsenault offers a thoughtful reflection on country music, secrets, and relationships with her outstanding third mystery. Pregnant Jamie Madden, recently demoted “from health reporter to part-time night copy editor” at her budget-strapped newspaper, has been named the literary executor for her author friend, Gretchen Waters, who died from a fall down some stairs after giving a reading at a New Hampshire public library. Gretchen made her name with the bestselling “Tammyland “…, but she left behind an unfinished work with a darker tone. As Jamie looks into the manuscript, she finds information on the violent death of Gretchen’s biological mother, and wonders whether the author’s research into the past robbed her of a future. Arsenault’s lyrical, moving prose serves to make this more than just a compelling whodunit.”

“Best friends in college, Jamie and Gretchen drifted apart over the years, but Gretchen’s sudden death leaves Jamie struggling to deal with the loss. When Gretchen’s family asks Jamie to complete her new book, she discovers that her friend, a successful author, wasn’t working on a second, breezy memoir but investigating the murder of her biological mother. As Jamie starts to ask her own questions, discrepancies between what she’s hearing and what’s been written leave her wondering whether Gretchen’s death was truly accidental…. Multiple story lines that take place in multiple time periods and that focus on at least three of the main characters, plus chapters from Gretchen’s published book and unfinished manuscript, all vie for attention, but should pose no problem for an alert reader. The characters come to life nicely, and subtle clues build to a surprising, satisfying conclusion. Readers who enjoyed Arsenault’s first two novels and literary mystery authors like Megan Abbott and Laura Lippman will appreciate this slow-paced but thoughtful tale of how seemingly unimportant choices can bring unexpected consequences,” says Library Journal.

Kirkus Reviews says:

“An uneven mystery about a murdered writer researching the suspicious death of her own mother. When Gretchen Waters dies, it appears to be a tragic accident: She falls down steep library steps after a reading of her memoir “Tammyland.” Her best friend, Jamie, a ripely pregnant journalist, is asked to become Gretchen’s literary executor, which means she’ll be organizing the vast quantities of notebooks, audio recordings and computer files that were to be Gretchen’s next memoir. In this new memoir (“Tammyland” dealt with a divorce-inspired road trip merged with anecdotes of country music’s tragic divas), Gretchen was focusing on the sad circumstances of her own childhood. Shelly was a teenager when she became pregnant with Gretchen, so her older sister, Linda, and her husband raised the baby. Gretchen would visit her mother on the weekends, until one day, Shelly was found beaten to death. Shelly’s drunken boyfriend was acquitted, but everyone in the small New Hampshire town still thinks he did it. Jamie begins by simply organizing all the material, but when her house is broken into (the only things stolen are related to Gretchen) and it becomes clear that Gretchen’s death was not an accident, she becomes an unlikely detective, attempting to piece together the last days of Gretchen’s life. Arsenault builds the framework of a taut mystery–the present crime is directly related to the past–but the novel’s pace is frequently slowed by excerpts from Tammyland and, to a lesser extent, Gretchen’s field notes and rough drafts of the new memoir. Though Arsenault is playing with the idea of constructed realities, of multiple versions of truth, much is peripheral to the mystery and feels like a drag on the excitement being built as Jamie gets closer to the truth, and the murderer gets closer to Jamie. Flawed but affective.”

When is it available?

It’s now in the Downtown Hartford Public Library and the Mark Twain Branch.

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