Still Missing isn’t just bad. It’s offensively bad. It’s a weird combination of twist-laden thriller, misery porn, and ultra-specific rape-survival tale. All these elements might work together—though they’d make the skin crawl—but the tone debuting novelist Chevy Stevens adopts to tell the story is unrelentingly chirpy. Whether her point-of-view character is avoiding having sex with the man who abducted her, talking with a girlfriend, or confronting a family member about long-buried secrets, she sounds like the heroine of a Jennifer Weiner-style chick-lit novel. There’s such a disconnect between tone and subject matter that the whole novel, which has landed on a handful of “best thrillers of the summer” lists, feels profoundly misjudged.
Stevens’ protagonist is formerly happy, now troubled realtor Annie O’Sullivan (whose name should really be adopted by a chain of faux-Irish pubs designed to lure in tourists in high-traffic areas). Annie was kidnapped from an open house one day, then escaped a year later. Back in the real world, she’s finally decided to tell all aspects of her story to a therapist (portrayed entirely as an off-page character, in one of Stevens’ few genuinely good decisions). The book unfolds as a series of missives she delivers to her therapist, who thankfully never questions her on just why she talks like the first-person narrator of a novel.
Annie takes her therapist through her year up in the mountains, a year full of unrelenting cruelty, endless rape, and constant, nail-biting terror. Stevens is never content to simply let bad things be bad: She keeps introducing new plot devices for Annie’s kidnapper to hideously yet predictably fuck over. Annie loses absolutely everything she cares about—and a few things she didn’t even know she cared about—while up on the mountain, and the book vacillates between seemingly exulting in her misery, and writing it off with chirpy jokes. In addition, the rapes are ridiculously detailed for some reason, even as Stevens is nowhere near proficient enough to write them as bleakly as they might deserve.
All of this might be vaguely palatable if it more or less ended there. Stevens isn’t a particularly talented writer or master of tone, but she’s good at pacing revelations, and the book does move with the thrill of the very best page-turners. When Annie comes down off the mountain, Stevens is more in her element, examining, with a refreshing sense of ambiguity, how her relationships changed after a year away, and slowly building a friendship between Annie and the cop who’s running lead on her investigation.
But Annie keeps fearing that there’s more going on behind her disappearance, and Stevens keeps dropping hints that she’s correct. Once she comes home halfway through the novel, it’s a long wait for the other shoe to drop, which it does via one of the most ludicrous, hideous twists in the history of bad twists. Stevens turns a bunch of characters who are already cliché stereotypes into mere pieces on a big game board, and she reduces many of her most interesting relationships to a big, manipulative waltz only she knows the steps to. The twist isn’t just completely unbelievable, it undercuts whatever power the ghastly rape-and-murder portions of the novel built up. Still Missing is a failure on every level, but what makes bile rise in the throat is just how glibly it treats its characters.