What Has Become of You

Academic settings… disturbed and/or disturbing people… why do I keep reading such novels?

Well, we know why the academic settings appeal to me. As for the characters, that’s harder to analyze. I suppose I’d like to understand some of the disturbed and disturbing people I’ve met.

Also, maybe I’m looking for a satisfactory resolution to conflicts. If so, I didn’t find it in this book. It says here (speaking of resolutions in general) that “the resolution allows a story to end without trailing off or leaving the reader confused or unsatisfied.” If so, I guess What Has Become of You must not have a resolution, as author Jan Elizabeth Watson leaves the reader both confused and unsatisfied: a major plot point is left unresolved at the end of the novel. Here’s what the publisher says:

What if a teacher’s most promising pupil is also her most dangerous? A tautly plotted psychological thriller, as intelligent as it is mesmerizing, What Has Become of You follows Vera Lundy, an aspiring crime writer and master of self-deprecation who, like many adults, has survived adolescence but hasn’t entirely overcome it. When she agrees to fill in for a private school English teacher on maternity leave, teaching The Catcher in the Rye to privileged girls, Vera feels in over her head. The students are on edge, too, due to the recent murder of a local girl close to their age.

Enter Jensen Willard. At fifteen she’s already a gifted writer but also self-destructive and eerily reminiscent of Vera’s younger self. As the two outcasts forge a tentative bond, a sense of menace enfolds their small New England town. When another student, new to the country, is imperiled by her beliefs, Vera finds herself in the vortex of danger—and suspicion.

With the threat of a killer at large, the disappearance of her increasingly worrisome pupil, and her own professional reputation at stake, Vera must thread her way among what is right by the law, by her students, and by herself. In this poignant page-turner, populated with beguiling characters and sharp social insights, coming-of-age can happen no matter how old you are.

OK, that’s one not-so-objective point of view. It’s not mine. On the plus side, the portrayal of a small private school in a small town in southern Maine is pretty convincing, as are the brief snippets of class discussions that we see. Of course I have some trouble judging an English class of only 12 students in a mostly upper-class single-sex private school, since it differs so much from my own experience. But wait… it does differ widely from my teaching experience, but it has certain similarities to my student experience: just change the gender, move the state from Maine to Mass, update the time period, and we’ve got something that matches my high-school English classes. But those are big differences, not to mention that in the fictional school they’re teaching American lit, something we were never allowed to study. (“This is the English department, not the American department,” as one of my teachers said.)

On the minus side, in addition to the unresolved plot point, all but two of the characters are basically two-dimensional cardboard figures. Vera Lundy and Jensen Willard, the two characters named in the extensive quotation above, are pretty well fleshed out and interesting, but nobody else is. Also, I was bothered by some errors and implausibilities that reveal the need for a good editor. (I know, I know, publishers can’t afford editors these days.) Here are a couple of examples. One error is the confusion of “first person” with “third person,” an error that I’m currently finding inexcusable because that’s the mood I’m in. And an implausibility is a newspaper headline that reads ”police seek missing scholarship student”; I can’t imagine any newspaper thinking that that’s an appropriate headline in the 21st Century.

Anyway, the novel did hold my attention (despite a slow start), and I rather liked the comparisons and contrasts between the world of Holden Caulfield and the world of 2014. But….


Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning