The Last Time I Saw Her by Alexandra Harrington
Three years had passed since we’d last spoken. I asked him, “What’s new?”
“Not much,” he replied.
This was a lie. Since the last time I saw him, the guy had gotten engaged, had two children, and lost his mother.
Still, one could argue that he made the polite, reasonable response. All those events, tragic and beautiful alike, had come and gone. I hadn’t been in town for their happening, so why should I get the recap?
If you come back to a place after a while, learning about the news during your absence becomes a strange task. “Not much” has happened, as always. If you needed to know, you would have been there. Why didn’t you call or text to keep up? Regardless of circumstance, you weren’t here. This town is the kiln which shaped you, but you left, and now the heat which molded you now suffocates. The heat has always been there, but now and forever onward you are the strange one for noticing it. You may be from here, but you will never again belong here.
Jesus himself spoke to this it when he said that no prophet is welcome in his hometown. Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, how still ye lie indeed! Small wonder he didn’t return after taming those Apocryphal dragons.
Anyway, here’s a small-town drama set in River John, Nova Scotia.
The Last Time I Saw Her is a weirdly appropriate novel for my first in this series. Alexandra Harrington’s debut follows young Charlotte Romer, who has come back to her tiny hometown. The prodigal daughter returns to a home where nothing has changed and nothing stayed the same.
When a member of Nimbus Publishing gave me this book as a free sample, I almost asked them if they were serious. I have, within the last five months, returned to and run away from my own hometown.
Not to mention the novel-length serial that I’m writing which covers this exact theme. I’m not unbiased, is what I mean.
Thankfully, my experiences are not so dramatic as Charlotte’s. The roaming Romer had not intended to leave. Her departure was as sudden and unexpected as her arrival. In the haze of events, she didn’t know how to tell the people closest to her. How can you tell your best friend that you won’t be at their side as they recover from trauma both physical and emotional?
What right do you have to re-enter someone’s life when you left at the time they most needed you? Who are the people to whom you can say ‘hear me out, these were the circumstances?’”
These questions kept me hooked to the story. Sure, Last Time is a thriller with intrigue, relationships, secrets, and other buzzwords for the back cover. But none of that held my interest. They don’t seem to hold Charlotte’s interest either, but we’ll get to that. She’s busy.
The girl is an absolute mess. She’s carrying around baggage and unprocessed grief. She wants to do the right thing, but she has no idea how to take care of herself, let along the people around her. She is an eighteen-year-old girl who’s trying to be an adult in a situation where there are none to help her. Her brother certainly isn’t much help, with his ‘don’t worry about it’ machismo attitude.
That makes a compelling character. The larger populace of River John provides a tapestry of community and personalities. These are messy, complicated people in a tiny setting. Charlotte is trapped with them, if not bound to them. The only things in town are the convenience store and a Chinese restaurant. She can’t help but bump into people she wishes to avoid; or be found by people looking for her.
Put these elements together, add the fact of youth, and you have a recipe for self-destruction. Self-destruction, as the Bronte sisters figured out long ago, creates a damn good story. Throw that in with the oft-traveled, never-exhausted theme of hometown blues and you get a lot of creative soil. Charlotte’s one-year academic absence puts her in a strange middle ground for the genre. For one year, the girl left the town, but she knew that she would return. She got out of the town for a while, unlike George Pratt/Bailey from The Greatest Gift (better known for the film version It’s a Wonderful Life); yet Charlotte never felt as if she’d escaped her home, like Camille Preaker, the protagonist of Sharp Objects.
That second book couldn’t go unmentioned for long. If you know it, you likely thought of it from the premise. For the unaware, Sharp Objects was the debut novel of Gillian Flynn (best known for Gone Girl). In it, a severely traumatized woman returns to her hometown, opening old wounds in both the metaphorical and literal sense. Themes include mental illness, lack of trust in law enforcement, the complex and unhealthy social codes of small towns, toxic relationships, bad sex, and self-harm.
In thinking of Sharp Objects as it relates to Last Time, I finally understood the appeal of YA for adults. Sharp Objects is a fascinating and compelling character study, but it is also a stomach-churning story of sick people doing sick things. If you think any single character in that story is emotionally stable or mentally healthy, you are missing the point.
The conversation about the pool table remains especially seared into my brain. Flynn’s prose reach up from the page, smacked me across the face, and stated the purpose of these small-town stories. A lot of people miss it in other tales.
Answer a quick question: what is the monster in Stephen King’s It? If you say it’s the clown, welcome to my personal version of “Frankenstein is the doctor!”
If you remove the creepy clown and the interdimensional turtle gods from It, you still have roaming bands of murderous bigots, abusive parents, and racist arsonists. People forget that Pennywise appears because of the evil in the town, not the reverse. Granted, the movie versions didn’t help.
For the record, I’m aware of the extensive lore about Pennywise emerging from another universe and the 1740 reign of terror and all the wonderful nonsense that is Stephen King lore.
I don’t care.
But I digress. I was talking about It: a small-town story of emotionally stunted growth, self-destruction, and bad sex.
I mean, I was talking about Sharp Objects: a small-town story of emotionally stunted growth, self-destruction, and bad sex.
I mean, I was talking about The Last Time I Saw Her: a small-town story of trying to grow, working to prevent the self-destruction of loved ones, and general awareness of sex as a concept.
That comparison shows what I appreciate about Last Time. These characters still have hope. They have a chance to find a healthy way to deal with their issues. Most shockingly, they communicate with each other. I nearly gasped when a character took double-checked that they were on the same page as the protagonist. After some emotionally intelligent conversation, they fixed their understanding and moved forward with their goals and the plot.
Here's a writing prompt for you: have a plot beat that can be summarized as “and then we talked it out”.
Or would that be too unrealistic?
Maybe it’s the genre. This is the YA straightforwardness that so many people enjoy.
Charlotte wants to live in the present, but the question “why did you go?” haunts her with every step. Moreover, the absence has destroyed her relationships within River John. Her best friend, Sophie, wants nothing to do with her. Sean, her brother, still struggles with finances.
Human drama. Messy behaviour. Good people with awful traits and awful people who remain human. Acknowledgement of self-harm and toxic relationships without stomach-churning depictions of them?
If there are more novels that focus on this, I want to read them.
Then again, Last Time doesn’t focus on them. The back cover blurb almost wants to avoid them. Instead, it promises a thriller: welcome back to a small town where no secrets can stay hidden. It is time to uncover the truth behind the image of the quiet town. Evil clowns and unsolved murder. “I know what you did last summer”.
You get the idea.
To be clear, I like The Last Time I Saw Her. It’s a strong debut that makes me excited to see more of Harrington’s work. That said, I don’t think it should be approached as a thriller. It’s an engaging drama. The twists and turns unfold naturally as we see the world through Charlotte’s eyes. She’s an overly critical narrator who’s in desperate need of hugs and therapy. The story doesn’t need cliffhangers or mysterious phone calls, despite its insistence on having them. The moments of an eighteen-year-old asking “Wait, I’m the asshole?” and “you did what with your car?” provide natural shocks.
Importantly, Alexandra Harrington knows how to spill tea. I defy anyone to get to the end of the first chapter and not immediately dedicate to the rest of the book.
If you don’t have the patience for It or the stomach for Sharp Objects, or even if you’re a fan of either of those, you should check out Last Time. It’s a quick read. It remains distinct from the other two titles while still being similar with it setting, theme, and disappointing ending.
Yeah, there’s the one glaring mark on my comments.
Remember when I said that Last Time wasn’t good as a thriller? You know how thrillers are supposed to have exciting conclusions built upon foreshadowing? Domino after domino until we arrive at a conclusion as shocking as it is inevitable.
Charlotte doesn’t want to go toward a thrilling climax. She’s more worried about paying her bills or gathering the strength to get out of bed without regretting her existence. While this makes a relatable character, it works against the tone of certain scenes. The twists and reveals force themselves into the plot. I almost laughed at one moment which was almost as on the nose as the Month Python “Get on with it” gag.
Charlotte does not want to live in a thriller, but the story demands she become embroiled in one. Perhaps I’m nitpicking, but it wouldn’t have taken much to make this feel truer to the character. The setting would have allowed her to have always suspected the truth, with the emotional hurdle of coming to accept what she’s denied. Even a few extra sentences here and there would have fixed my issues. Something simple like “I was dealing with my own stuff and didn’t want deal with the rest of the town.” Or, more in keeping with the themes, we could have seen Charlotte’s helplessness in the grand plot in which she now found herself.
But that’s not as entertaining as the dancing clown. This novel is for quick reading and a good time. It does a lot of things I love, while belonging to a genre that usually isn’t my thing. Maybe I’m taking it too seriously. For whatever it’s worth, I think that Harrington could pull off a complex moral drama. The daily lives and mental health struggles of her main characters kept me turning the pages even after the initial high of the first chapter.
Also, she nailed the epilogue. Underwhelmed as I was with the climax, the final few pages set the perfect tone. It left me wanting more. It showed that Harrington understood the themes which she’d set out. She knows how to fulfill them with pathos and irony and all the words that English professors like.
To sum up, Alexandra Harrington made a strong debut. I’m excited for her next project. It’s hard to make a name as a writer and I respect the work that she put forward.
On that note, my newest short story is now available at NewMyths.com! It’s called ‘Night at the Black Emerald’; it features cocktails, architecture, and dragons. Judge for yourself whether I have any right to make notes on someone else’s fiction.
Happy reading, everybody.