Last year I read The Year of Fog and absolutely loved it. I was thrilled to see Michelle Richmond on a panel at Book Group Expo in 2008, and her newest book, No One You Know, had recently been released, so I quickly picked it up.
No One You Know is about Ellie, whose sister, Lila, was murdered 20 years ago. The murderer was never caught, though one of Ellie’s teachers, Andrew Thorpe, wrote a true crime book about the murder that suggested the murderer was Lila’s lover, Peter McConnell. This true crime book has haunted Lila for the past 20 years, defining who she was and who she’s become. She’s finally decided to try and figure out why her sister was murdered after she encounters Peter McConnell during a coffee buying trip in Nicaragua. Ellie learns more about her sister while interviewing people who knew her than she ever thought she’d actually know.
Ellie had felt really close to Lila, even though Lila was a mathematician and Ellie wasn’t interested in math. Lila’s murder makes Ellie wonder how well she really did know her sister, and Thorpe’s book only magnifies the sisters’ differences. Lila’s murder changes the family, changes Ellie: “But no matter how well-adjusted a family may be, no matter how hard its individual members try to move on, grief is not a thing that can simply be managed. The shape of our family had changed.”
One of the most heart-wrenching parts of this book is Ellie’s confession that she thinks if she had been the one to die, her family would have bounced back easier than when it was Lila who died: “I wished, at that moment, that I could have traded places with Lila. I imagined a scenario in which my mother’s grief was smaller, more manageable, a scenario in which she had not lost her brilliant eldest daughter. Surely, if she’d only lost me, the recovery would have been quicker, the devastation less complete. Perhaps the family would have inched closer together rather than farther apart.”
The title could arguably refer to many things. In the book, when Ellie asks Lila why she’d gotten a tattoo of two doughnuts, Lila tells Ellie that someone dared her, and when Ellie asks who, Lila responds, “No one you know.” But is the title referring to this mysterious person in Lila’s life, or is it referring to the fact that Lila ultimately was no one Ellie knew? Perhaps the title is referring to Ellie herself, that Ellie doesn’t even know who she herself is. It is after finding out who her sister was that she ultimately comes to peace with herself.
There’s an interesting theme in No One You Know about storytelling. You can see the way that Ellie changes throughout the story just by looking at how she talks about storytelling:
Every story is an invention, subject to the whims of the author. For the audience on the other side of the page, the words march forward with a certain inevitability — as if the story could exist one way only, the way in which it is written. But there is never just one way to tell a story. Someone has chosen the beginning and end. Someone has chosen who will emerge as the hero or heroine, and who will play the villain. Each choice is made at the expense of an infinite number of variations. Who is to say which version of the story is true?
Stories aren’t set in stone. It took me the longest time to realize this.
Every story is flawed, every story is subject to change. Even after it is set down in print, between the covers of a book, a story is not immune to alteration. People can go on telling it in their own way, remembering it the way they want. And in each telling the ending may change, or even the beginning. Inevitably, in some cases it will be worse, and in others it just might be better. A story, after all, does not only belong to the one who is telling it. It belongs, in equal measure, to the one who is listening.
I was saddened to find that I didn’t like No One You Know near as much as I liked The Year of Fog. For some reason, I never really connected with Ellie, though I certainly felt compassion for her. I do feel compelled to say that I think Richmond’s writing is fantastic! She has one of those easy styles that is at once easy to read yet literary. She definitely knows how to put a story together, but I just didn’t like this story. This story felt meandering and I wasn’t always sure I understood where it was going..
One of the issues I had with the book, other than not connecting with the main character, was that the issue of storytelling was so prevalent (as I mentioned), and one of the things that’s discussed is how Andrew Thorpe wrote his book with the ending in mind, and how that isn’t right, yet it’s my understanding (and I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure this is what the author said while on a panel at Book Group Expo) that Michelle Richmond controls her characters, they don’t control the story, so isn’t she doing what Andrew Thorpe was doing: ultimately writing with the end already in place?
I’m totally bummed I didn’t like this book, but I will eagerly await Richmond’s next book and snatch it off the shelves.
Rating: 79 out of 100