You’ve probably seen a similar story in the news: A pretty American teenager meets a tragic end while on vacation in a tropical paradise. The 24-hour news cycle is fueled by every salacious detail of the girl’s private life, and with every new revelation, hasty conclusions are drawn. The lurid media frenzy cruelly obscures what should be obvious—that the dead girl was a real person, someone’s daughter or perhaps someone’s sister.
Alexis Schaitkin’s magnetic debut, Saint X, begins on the first day of 7-year-old Claire Thomas’ family vacation on a fictional Caribbean island. Claire’s 18-year-old sister, Alison—gorgeous, brilliant and on the sullen cusp of adulthood—disappears on the last day. When her body is found, local police make some arrests but can’t make murder charges stick, which drives her grieving parents even further around the bend. Claire, already a “reticent, prickly” child with an obsessive streak, struggles to fit into her new identity as the surviving sister: “I was an only child now, hopelessly insufficient.”
But time does its good work. The Thomases transplant themselves from the East Coast to Pasadena, California, where Claire decides to go by Emily, her middle name. A fresh start in a sunny setting is what she and her family need to forge a manageable path through the rest of their lives. If Alison haunts her little sister throughout childhood, into college and beyond, it is more or less as a friendly ghost.
This relative peace is upended in a moment. Emily, now an editorial assistant living in Brooklyn, has a chance encounter with an employee of the Saint X resort where her family vacationed—a man with whom Alison was seen on the night she died. Emily is yanked instantly into an obsessive web of her own making, a cold case unceremoniously reopened: Who was her sister, really? And what really happened to her?
Saint X is a nuanced examination of class, privilege and the terrible ways that tragedy can echo forward in time. Schaitkin embellishes a strong plot with psychologically complex main characters and a chorus of devastatingly incomplete narratives from peripheral characters about what really took place on Saint X. This is a must-read for fans of literary suspense.