In this era of domestic thrillers, a novel about a functional, loving family can feel refreshing and downright unexpected. Extraordinary circumstances severely test the bonds of one such family in Laura Dave’s The Last Thing He Told Me.
Hannah Hall’s adoring husband, coding genius Owen Michaels, vanishes on the same day that his company is raided by the FBI for massive securities fraud. He leaves behind a suspiciously large duffel bag full of cash for his 16-year-old daughter, Bailey. And for his bewildered wife, who is Bailey’s stepmother, he leaves a cryptic note with a single directive: “Protect her.”
Hannah desperately wants to fulfill his request, but she also wants answers. As she searches for the truth about her missing husband and contends with the legal troubles caused by his disappearance, she also tries to nurture a stepdaughter who barely wants anything to do with her.
As these events unfold in the present, flashbacks show how Hannah’s relationships have developed and offer clues about her husband’s story. Along the way, her own history also comes into play. Deep-rooted abandonment issues shape her choices in the present, and the attorney she reaches out to for help navigating these treacherous waters is her ex-fiancé.
The drama gets a little thin in spots. The novel’s backdrop is a half-billion-dollar financial disaster, but despite Owen’s high-profile role, there’s no press hounding Hannah and Bailey. They primarily encounter friction from authorities, Bailey’s classmates and Owen and Hannah’s friends. Beyond that, stepmother and stepdaughter are able to maintain anonymity as a firestorm of drama unfolds around the company’s CEO.
Downplaying the conflict might be a trade-off for the novel’s greater focus on character development and relationships. Hannah’s insights and epiphanies about how to parent an untrusting teenager aren’t all that revelatory, but they certainly are reminders of what’s most important.
As a result, Dave pulls off something that feels both new and familiar: a novel of domestic suspense that unnerves, then reassures. This is the antithesis of the way novels like Gone Girl or My Lovely Wife are constructed; in The Last Thing He Told Me, the surface is ugly, the situation disturbing, but almost everyone involved is basically good underneath it all. Dave has given readers what many people crave right now—a thoroughly engrossing yet comforting distraction.