Then You Were Gone by Lauren Strasnick

Grief and intimacy don’t seem like they’re entirely related things, but they are. The lines between them aren’t too far apart, and the way they can entangle fascinates me as a reader. In Lauren Strasnick’s Then You Were Gone, these lines are explored and exploited in a way that make readers question where and if they can be extracted from one another.

Adrienne and Dakota were best friends for a long time. But two years ago, they just stopped being friends. Adrienne was never quite sure why.

Flash forward to now. A voicemail on Adrienne’s phone from Dakota. It begs her to call back. But Adrienne waits. She doesn’t call back.

Then it’s too late.

Dakota goes missing, and she’s presumed dead. But she’s not just presumed dead. Everyone thinks she’s killed herself. See, Dakota’s life over the last couple of years has been about performance. She was in a band getting some recognition. She’d earned a reputation. A name for herself. But it wasn’t because she was great but because she was a little bit reckless. A little bit wild. So her going missing isn’t entirely a surprise, and it’s easy to see why someone who had built up so much would want to kill themselves. Especially because she never seemed happy.

But Adrienne isn’t going to settle that easily. Why was it Dakota reached out to her? There had to be a reason, and Adrienne needs to know.

In between this, though, is Adrienne’s relationship with boyfriend Lee. It’s steamy. It’s sensual. It’s sexy. Lee is good for Adrienne, and he treats her well. He cares for her, but he doesn’t do so in a way that makes her a weak girl or a fawn to him. Instead, she gains as much from the relationship as he does. But the further Adrienne obsesses about Dakota’s disappearance, the further away from Lee she pulls. The further away from herself she pulls.

Adrienne wants to get to know Julian better. He’s in her lit class — her favorite class, the one she does best in, the one taught by Nick Murphy who really thinks Adrienne is something special. Julian was the last guy to be with Dakota and, she thinks, the last one to see her alive. As Adrienne finds the courage to talk to him, it becomes much more than talk. It becomes something heavier. Together, the two of them are grieving the loss. More than that, though, together, the two of them are finding intimacy. It’s not with one another though. It’s with their shared memory of Dakota.

See, Adrienne has started to dress like Dakota. Has started to take on the persona of Dakota. She’s living in the image she saw and believed to be Dakota of now. And Julian wants to still be with Dakota. So now that Adrienne is playing the part, so will he. He wants to be with Adrienne not because he likes Adrienne but he likes to imagine she is Dakota. Adrienne is game. Adrienne is leading. But the moment when the two of them are naked — that moment right before they’re about to have sex — Adrienne wakes up and has the horrible realization of what’s going on. Neither she nor Julian are in this for themselves. For who each other is. Rather, they’re playing the role of Dakota. Adrienne living as her, Julian buying into the image.

It’s this moment when Adrienne realizes she needs to find Dakota and figure out why it is she left. Because Adrienne doesn’t believe for a moment that she’s dead.

Then You Were Gone doesn’t offer readers everything. It’s short, fast-paced, and it’s written in a very minimalistic style. It’s because that’s how Adrienne thinks and processes. She wants the immediate answer. She wants the solution. She wants to push through to get there. But as much as the plot moves quickly, Strasnick is smart in her use of sensual, romantic moments between Lee and Adrienne to slow the pacing down a bit. To give us real insight into who they are. We learn that Lee really and truly is a good guy. Adrienne, at her core, is a good girl. But it’s that grief, that missing, that longing for her former best friend, that drives her to become someone who she isn’t. Even though we know Adrienne is an average student, we know she loves her lit class. She loves the teacher and the content. The grief, though, hits her so hard that she begins to not care. She begins to fail in that class too, and interestingly, it is her only class with Julian. A sign, maybe?

Spoilers abound in the next two paragraphs, so proceed accordingly.

It turns out that Dakota’s not dead at all. She’s gone away. She’s become fed up with people seeing her and believing her to be a certain kind of person. What Adrienne’s done in her grieving of Dakota is flash back to their friendship. To those moments right before things fell apart. Dakota pushed Adrienne to talk about love and to admit to admiring her wholeheartedly. To kissing her, to feeling her physically even though Adrienne wasn’t necessarily comfortable with it (she was mentally, but the actual, physical doing of it wasn’t okay with her). These scenes highlight what was wrong with Dakota and what made her want to leave: she was too easily able to manipulate people, and through that manipulation — through that playing and toying with other people — she lost the sense of who she was to herself. She realized she was nothing but an idea and image to others because that was all she’d become to herself. She had no true intimacy with anyone. It was all a game.

The truth of the mystery is that it was teacher Nick Murphy who finally drove Dakota away. She’d become pregnant from him. She couldn’t face him, couldn’t face herself, and certainly, she couldn’t raise a baby. While this was a twist in the plot — we’d been led to believe what a great guy Nick was — I didn’t necessarily buy it. I didn’t get to know him well enough, and I didn’t know what his relationship with Dakota was at all, since all of what we learn comes from Adrienne’s perspective. Adrienne and Dakota hadn’t been friends for two years, so there is a huge gap in knowledge and history. I wish this hadn’t been the outcome because there were a number of alternatives. That said, I suspect some readers could argue that Dakota made this story up (she is dodgy when she and Adrienne reunite), but since Adrienne presses her teacher about it, he relents (which, could be argued is because he’s a teacher and fearful of losing his position were any sort of accusations to emerge).

Strasnick’s prose is tight, and her story compelling. It’s, at times, sexy but the grief undercuts it in a way to make these moments more than passing moments of physical interaction. They’re intimate. They’re whole and naked moments of people being honest and true with one another. As I noted earlier, this is when we really learn who Adrienne and Lee are as individuals. And because Dakota couldn’t feel those moments in her life, that’s why she felt a fake. That’s why when Adrienne and Julian have their encounter, it falls apart. Adrienne is more than simply a shadow of Dakota. Grief is, of course, an intimate experience because it is utterly unique to every individual who experiences it. Having grief work in tandem with intimacy only amplified both experiences for the characters.

One of the smaller details I loved about the book was that Adrienne didn’t have a traditional family structure, nor was this non-traditional structure ever a problem. She lived with her mom and her mom’s boyfriend Sam — not step-father, as she points out once in the story. Sam loves Adrienne as his own, and they actually spend time together doing things. In fact, it’s Sam who reveals a small detail about Dakota that helps Adrienne solve the mystery at the end. He’s a cool character and it’s refreshing to read stories like this, where the parental structure isn’t either a happily married couple or a half a unit due to one member’s death. This is the reality of a lot of today’s teens.

There is a sweet ending to the story. It ties up the loose ends of romance and intimacy and grief in an unexpected but, I think, well-deserved way. This reminded me quite a bit of Kirsten Hubbard’s Like Mandarin, with Dakota playing the role of Mandarin quite well and Adrienne playing the role of Grace. It also combined many of the elements of a number of contemporary grief novels, too, and drawing these two things together just worked. Pass this off to readers looking for a book about friendship and grief, with a mystery and romance skimming the surface.

Then You Were Gone published on January 1 and is available now. Review copy received from the publisher. 

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