Book Review: Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

The next morning, the head ranger came in and offered Olive a box of doughnuts as if sugar might cushion the blow, and Jonathan got to watch his daughter’s face collapse inward as this weather-battered man uttered the words We’re calling off the search. The understanding hit him like a fist in the gut a half second later, choking him wordless.

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown tells the story of Olive and Jonathan; forced into the role of single parent after the unsolved disappearance of his wife, Billie, Jonathan struggles to communicate with Olive who has transformed into a sullen teenager withholding many of the things they used to share. Shaken by the possibility of her mother’s death, Olive experiences a supernatural event, or so she believes, which causes her to wonder if her mother may be alive, lost or hurt, and trying to call for help.

The visions are frustratingly cryptic and uncontrollable; they shimmer across her existence like layers of cellophane rather than offering any useful information. They feel like fragments of clues, signs pointing toward a bigger picture she can’t quite grasp. What does it all mean?

Almost one year after she first disappeared, Billie appears to Olive, ethereal and angelic, floating among the girls at Olive’s all-girl private school. She beckons to Olive, asking why she has stopped looking for her.

Claremont Prep courtyard now with her eyes closed, the rain soaking through her shoes as she thinks of phantoms, and visions, and possibility. Her mind keeps settling back in the same place: What if Mom is still alive, somewhere, and she has reached out to let me know?

Gleaning clues from that first vision, Olive recruits the help of a friend and the two set out to canvass the beach houses of Santa Cruz, the last place Olive and her parents visited together, hoping to find Billie, some one who recognizes her, any clue to distract from the morbid possibility that threatens to stick with each passing day.

Meanwhile, Jonathan trudges through his grief at the loss of his wife. As the first anniversary of her disappearance approaches, he begins to reevaluate his life and the expectations Billie had of him and their marriage. As he reminisces, he questions his role in her disappearance.

“Everybody needs someone to take care of them,” I replied. “Whether they know it or not.” She looked at me for a long time. “You’re right.” She leaned in and kissed me hard. “OK. Let’s do it. I love you. Let’s get married.” And so we did, two near-strangers jumping off a cliff together. For sixteen years, I tried my hardest to live up to that promise: to watch out for her, be her safe harbor. We made a beautiful life together, raised a beloved child, and built a nice home, at which point I must have forgotten my vigilance. Because in the end, I didn’t manage to keep her safe at all.

Jonathan knows very little about Billie’s life before they met. Cryptically referred to as her “Lost Years”, Billie only shares bits a pieces- her oppressive parents, transient lifestyle and rebellious choices- never painting a detailed picture.  Ever the free spirit, Billie was known for her grab-life-by-the-balls attitude and her need for adventure and excitement. Jonathan did what he could to facilitate, but after she vanished on a solo hiking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail, the guilt begins to take its toll. Quitting his job at a tech magazine to write a memoir about Billie and their life together, Jonathan begins to uncover parts of her past that lead him to question the very foundation of their marriage.

Surely a few lies don’t change everything, he keeps trying to reassure himself; she’s still the same person you loved. You always knew she was a complicated woman, even if you’ve been glossing over that in your memoir. But something has shifted internally, and he’s not sure how to set it back to where he began. The discontents he had in his marriage— the ones he’s been ignoring out of, what, respect for the dead? convenience for his book?— are starting to creep through in his writing. How is he supposed to write a love story when he’s clearly been deceived by his own protagonist?

Unable to accept the fact that his wife really is dead, Jonathan chooses to follow Olive’s lead and begins to search even deeper, looking for an explanation for her disappearance- whether that be a lover or possibly a suspect. What he reveals sends him further down the path of self-doubt, and it proves to be even worse than the possibility of her death.

The thing was— I secretly liked this about her. I liked the way it made me feel so chosen. Other people might come and go, but I was the one she really loved. She held the bar so very, very high, and Olive and I were the only ones who made the cut. It made me feel closer to her. But now that she’s gone, I have to wonder: Was that bar so impossibly high that no one, even Olive and me, could hang on to it for long? Did our particular brand of bullshit finally cross the threshold of her limits? Should I have realized, that day in Big Sur when I smiled blindly out at a crowd compromised almost entirely of my friends, that I was marrying a woman who didn’t want to be known by anyone— not even me? If I dig back far enough in Billie’s history, will I finally find someone who knows what was really going on inside her?

Each clue points to a different possibility, but what Olive and Jonathan discover is more than they could have ever anticipated. A true psychological suspense, Watch Me Disappear explores how the secrets we keep never truly stay hidden.

“…All people are unknowable, no matter how close you may think you are. Of the millions of thoughts we all think every day, of the millions of experiences we have, how many do we allow other people to know about? A handful? And no one willingly shares their worst, do they? The flaws you see, those are like the very tip of an iceberg. So we’re all just poking around on the surface, trying to figure out the people we love with a kind of, I guess, naïve idealism.”

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A review copy of this title was provided by Random House- Spiegel & Grau and Netgalley

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

  1. Gosh, that does sound very intriguing and also well done. I often steer clear of psychological thrillers as they do tip into the violent quite a lot of the time and I can’t deal with that, but some do sound v good indeed and this is one of them.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I review everything I read so if I do pick it up, it will get reviewed … however, I also read books in the order of acquisition, so it could be a while … Thanks for letting me know it’s not horrific, though!

        Liked by 1 person

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