American pop culture is obsessed with child abduction. Watch TV on any given night and it’s hard to avoid stumbling on a drama in which a malevolent stranger snatches a little girl from her backyard or playground or schoolbus stop. (On Monday, when “CSI,” “Medium” and “Criminal Minds” are on, you could watch the scenario unfold thrice in quick succession.) Given the relative rarity of such crimes in real life, why do we fixate on them in fiction? Maybe sensationalism and prurience are involved, but the theme taps a genuine vein of anxiety. Judging by their advertisers and their propensity to rerun on Lifetime, abduction stories appeal particularly to female viewers, especially when the detective solving the case is a woman.
Barre author Jennifer McMahon is one of a group of writers who have hit the bestseller lists by translating this primetime genre into gripping fiction. With its ultra-short chapters, fast-paced action and no-frills prose, Island of Lost Girls already reads a little like a teleplay. In the prologue — call it a teaser — a little girl playing in the woods sees cops discover a body. And in the first chapter — call it a second teaser — a young woman at a gas station watches, too startled to act, as a giant white rabbit emerges from a car and lures a different small girl away into the unknown.
After these twin openings, McMahon might as well be daring the reader not to keep turning pages. The story unfolds in rapidly alternating updates and flashbacks, all centering on Rhonda, the young woman who flubbed her chance to stop a 7-year-old’s abduction in “[t]he time it takes to soft-boil an egg.”
A recent college grad, Rhonda is no stranger to the lost-girl phenomenon, we soon discover. Her best friend Lizzy vanished when she was 14, and Rhonda can’t stop rehashing the unsettling events that led there. It doesn’t help that she’s still hopelessly in love with Lizzy’s brother Peter, who works at the gas station where the kidnapping took place. As the search for little Ernestine heats up, Rhonda frets that Peter may become a suspect — and she embarks on some sleuthing of her own.
McMahon hasn’t strayed far from the formula of her first novel, Promise Not to Tell, in which the heroine delved into memories of a friend who was murdered at 12 in order to solve a mystery in the present. Both books are set in small-town Vermont. Both also have way more potential than punch.
In Rhonda’s memories of the summers she spent putting on amateur theatricals with Peter and Lizzy, we find traces of a raw, disturbing, coming-of-age tale. But it’s been forced into the mold of a pulpy thriller full of shocks and twists — some of which the reader sees coming long before Rhonda does. Even more damaging are the stock characters and the author’s propensity for spelling things out, rather than letting her situations make their points on their own. (The narrator is forever stepping in to make clunky pronouncements such as, “It made sense in a horrible sort of way.”)
Pulp writing doesn’t have to be bad, dishonorable or even exploitive; some would argue that child-abduction stories give their viewers and readers a vital kind of catharsis. In Island, moreover, McMahon clearly wants to turn a critical eye on the cult of lost girls rather than simply stoking our fears. She suggests that the rabbit-suited kidnapper has notions about trying to preserve its victim’s innocence by removing her to a secure haven, and Rhonda dreams repeatedly of a Neverland-like “island” where all the missing girls play happily. The subtext, of course, is that many children aren’t safe at home, and danger may be more likely to lurk in the next room than on the streets.
This is weighty stuff, especially when McMahon ladles on allusions to one of the creepiest books about childhood ever written: Peter Pan. In his own childhood, Rhonda’s Peter fixates on that other Peter, directing his friends in a wild and woolly outdoor production of the classic. The problem is, McMahon’s characters haven’t an ounce of J.M. Barrie’s genuine strangeness. Filtered through Rhonda’s bland descriptions, Peter comes across as a boy next door who inexplicably wants his sister to dress like a pirate. There’s no trace of the volatility that would make him a plausible kidnapping suspect as an adult.
While McMahon does pull off a couple of vivid scenes — such as a childhood Easter-egg hunt that goes on far too long — most of her characters and situations feel like sketches, frustratingly unrealized. Though Rhonda is considerably younger than the narrator of Promise Not to Tell, it’s hard to detect any difference between these focal characters, because they’re less people than storytelling devices.
That’s where television may have an advantage over fiction: Good actors can take a generic character and, week by week, bit by bit, bring him or her alive as an individual. The perfunctory zigs and zags of McMahon’s denouement would look fine on the small screen, too. But to write a compelling novel about a hot-button subject — with indelible details, lifelike characters and sentences that resound in readers’ heads — is a lot harder than just lining up the necessary plot components. In her eagerness to create a page-turner, McMahon neglects the deeper resonances that make pages worth turning. With a stronger voice, she’d do justice to her ideas and move beyond the ranks of novelists who give people a quick story fix at airports and on beaches, where the tube isn’t available.
From Island of Lost Girls:
“You mean someone wearing a rabbit suit?” one of the state troopers would ask [Rhonda] later. “Like the Easter bunny?”
“Yes,” she would tell him. “Of course. A white rabbit suit. A costume. It was a man wearing a costume.”
“How do you know it was a man, Miss Farr? With the costume?”
“I don’t know, I guess. It just . . . it just seemed like it would be a man. And he was tall.”
“Six feet tall,” the trooper repeated back to her, reading from his own notes.
But the truth was, when the rabbit got out of the car, there in Pat’s Mini Mart parking lot at quarter to three on a Monday afternoon, it didn’t occur to Rhonda that there might be a person inside. He hopped like a bunny, moved quickly, nervously, jerking his big white head one way, then the other. He turned toward Rhonda, and for an instant he seemed to stare at her with his blind plastic eyes. She imagined she could almost see his nose twitch as he gave a slight nod in her direction.
Rhonda watched as the rabbit rapped on Ernie’s window with his big white fluffy paw. The little girl grinned up at him and pushed open her door. He leaned down and Ernie touched the bunny fondly on the head, right behind its ears, and unbuckled her seat belt.
The rabbit held out its paw and Ernie took it in her own small hand, stepping from her mother’s car to the gold Volkswagen, getting in the passenger seat without a struggle, without any hesitation. The little girl smiled the whole time.
Island of Lost Girls by Jennifer McMahon, Harper, 255 pages. $13.95.