Nearly has a rough life. Her mother is a stripper, they barely have enough money to eat, and her father is gone. She spends her days studying hard to have a chance at a scholarship which will allow her to improve her future. Once a week she buys a paper to read the personals section, hoping for a message from her dad.
Her life is about to get rougher. Someone starts knocking off the kids that Nearly tutors and leaving cryptic messages for her in the personals. Nearly becomes the main suspect and she must solve the killer's clues and pair up with a CI who is undercover at her school in order to clear her name. Of course, she might be next on the chopping block ...
There is so much to unpack in this novel, so bear with me. This is going to be a long review.
Nearly's best subjects are math and science, and the puzzles that the killer leaves for her via the personals take advantage of her skills. The puzzles are clever (and I'm clever, too, because I figured out the mystery 70 pages before Nearly did) and a unique frame for the story. However, it requires a pretty big suspension of belief to swallow that the police would be so bumbling and make such a mess of the investigation. Also, I find it extraordinarily difficult to imagine that national media wouldn't be all over a school beset by so many homicides in such a short period of time.
If you really think hard about it, the killer is pretty easy to narrow down. It has to be someone with a motive to frame Nearly, with the smarts to pull off complicated puzzles, and with close access to Nearly. That's a very short list. That said, I suspect most casual readers will be surprised by the killer's identity as there are numerous plausible red herrings embedded throughout.
Nearly's Paranormal Power
Nearly is an empath who can "taste" others emotions when she touches them. Unexpectedly perhaps, her paranormal ability mostly serves to inform her character rather than the plot. (There is one showy scene during a rave where Nearly is knocked out due to touching drugged dancers that has a slight bearing on the plot, but that's about it) What I found so fascinating about Nearly is that despite being an empath, she is very cut off from her own emotions. She hates touching people, and goes out of her way to be a loner. I also think this dissociation is what makes her so reckless. She doesn't have much of a reaction when acquaintances are killed because she doesn't allow herself to feel. She does however start to open up to Reece. And that brings us to:
Nearly and Reece don't get off to a great start. Rumor is that he's dangerous and she overhears a detective at the police station assigning Reece to get close to her in order to spy on her.
And then there's a uncomfortable scene that I've seen some reviewers label as victim blaming, though I read it a different way. Nearly comes to school to confront Reece. She shouts that she knows what he is and is about to reveal that he's a CI (which would put Reece in mortal danger). Desperate to silence her, Reece pushes her up against a locker and kisses her. Nearly freaks out (remember - she hates being touched) and ends up biting and slapping him, which attracts the attention of the school staff and results in Reece being expelled. Nearly feels bad then, going to the principal and saying:
Is Nearly the victim of a sexual assault? I agree that you could argue that she is and that Reece should definitely learn that there are better ways to shut someone up than to kiss them without their permission. BUT. The reason she felt guilty? Not because he kissed her and she reacted badly to it. It was because she was about to reveal information that could get Reece killed.
In any case, Reece awakens feelings in Nearly that she pretty much thought were dead. Once she learns more about him as a person (that he's essentially a kind person pushed to extremes), she decides to confide in him in a heartbreaking scene. She confesses that she doesn’t want to touch him because then she’ll know for sure how much he hates her. Reese counters with:
“You think you know how I feel about you? Then touch me.” He took my sleeve and drew my hand to his chest. Slowly, I slid my hand up his collar, and spread my fingers over his bare skin. His pulse thrummed hard. My heart raced with his fear and the rush of his desire.
Empath abilities FTW!
NEARLY GONE is the rare mystery that is both character and plot driven. Definitely worth a look, especially if you like puzzles.
NEARLY GONE is available in hardcover now. Find out more about it at the author's website.
FTC disclosure: NetGalley