I first became aware of Megan Miranda’s storytelling skill when I read her previous novel All the Missing Girls, which was told BACKWARDS. Not an easy thing to pull off, but she did it in a 5-star fashion, so I was ready with high expectations when I received an advance copy of her latest book The Perfect Stranger in exchange for my honest review (thanks, Simon & Schuster and NetGalley!!)
In this one, the protagonist is an apparently troubled journalist named Leah Stevens, who has moved to a small town in western Pennsylvania to escape and start over. She picks up and takes off with her friend Emmy, becoming a high school teacher while Emmy works odd jobs under the table…or does she??? In fact, did Emmy really exist at all? When Leah reports her missing and the police come to investigate, there is no record of her existence anywhere, either currently or in the past when Leah and Emmy were college roommates. The reader is taken on a twisted ride while Leah tries to find Emmy while hiding her own past (the details of which are rolled out slowly, revealing the reason for Leah’s rush out of Boston and into Pennsylvania.
As the details of her past are revealed, we learn there was a restraining order against Leah and a threatened lawsuit for her actions in a story she wrote in Boston. Leah is just settling in to her new life when someone beats the crap out of a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Leah, and then Emmy disappears. Leah desperately wants to find Emmy, and becomes deeply entangled with the lead detective working on Emmy’s disappearance. She tries to cooperate, but the is no trace of Emmy, not even a digital footprint. At this point the reader may wonder if Emmy ever existed, or whether Leah might have dissociative identity disorder.
The possibility of a split personality is revealed as Leah tells the reader “I was an adolescent when I first started to see myself as two people…I was both walking down the hall and watching myself walk down the hall.” Speaking of a female student, she said she ”…held herself as if she knew it. She must’ve thought there were certain rules that still applied. “
Leah’s struggles become more clear as she continues ”…then you learn. Your backbone was all false bravado. An act that was highly cultivated, taught and expected of girls now. The spunk that was appreciated and rewarded. Talk back to the professor to show your grit.” Leah has learned that for her young student “…danger had not yet made itself apparent, but it was everywhere, whether she wanted to believe it or not.”
That is part of what makes this so GOOD: this is not just a mystery/thriller (although it definitely is a good example of that genre) – it is also a critique of how women fit in (or not) and learn to make their way in the world, whether it is essential to follow the rules, and the importance of learning about trust.
Leah’s struggle to reclaim her good name, find Emmy and figure out who, if anyone, she can trust makes this an interesting and exciting book. Five stars. And I look forward to Megan Miranda’s future work!