NEVER EVER ASSUME NO ONE SAW
In the wake of the financial crisis that slammed the country into recession five years previous, Jake Buckman nearly lost his family at the same time he lost his job. More intent on paying the bills than paying attention to his wife and son, he didn’t realize the toll his actions had taken until it was almost too late. Hard work has rebuilt their financial situation, and then some. Counseling has helped his marriage to Pam. But, so far, nothing has helped restore his relationship with his son, Ryan.
As our story opens, it is a Friday night and Jake has let Pam persuade him, in yet another attempt at bridging the gap, to pick 16-year-old Ryan up from the movies. When, as Pam had hoped, a rare good choice of words leads to an actual and animated conversation with Ryan, Jake is overjoyed. When the discussion about the souped up Audi that Jake is driving leads to a request by Ryan to drive the rest of the way home, Jake only hesitates a moment before agreeing.
The night is cold and darker than usual from a dense fog. Rain is slowly starting to fall and it is after state curfew for driving on a learner’s permit. Even the most casual reader can figure what’s going to happen next. And they would be right – and very, very wrong, because we are only on page 10.
Told from Jake’s point of view, his initial poor judgment leads to even worse judgment, which leads to lie after lie, regret after regret, and no way out short of total destruction. Jake never blames anyone but himself for the situation he and Ryan are in and he struggles every minute to find any way out short of sending his son to jail. His internal monologues are emotionally difficult to read as you struggle, sometimes unsuccessfully, to understand his reasoning for the actions he takes. But, regardless of whether you approve or disapprove of his choices, you know instinctively that he is trying to save a child who is spiraling down ever closer to the pit with every passing minute.
And Lisa Scottoline never lets up the pressure. Until the last page of the last chapter before the epilogue, she never allows Jake or Ryan one easy breath. And, with that, the reader is never given the slightest respite either. Scottoline presents us with a psychological thriller that will keep you reading through meals and well into the night.
If and when your burning eyes force you to bed before you can finish the tale, you may well lie there for hours staring at the ceiling, wondering just how bad the situation will become in the next chapter. You see, the Buckmans may not be the average American family in terms of wealth or public standing, but what happens to them could happen to anyone of any standing at anytime on any highway. And Scottoline forces you to look inside yourself and wonder if your own response to such a terrible situation would be to “keep quiet.”
However, as thrilling and thought provoking as the story is, I have two serious problems with the book. The first is with Scottoline’s characterization of Pam Buckman. By the time I had completed the first scene in which she physically appears, I thoroughly despised the woman, as both wife and mother. To those of us in the educational community, she is characterized as what we, with little fondness, term a “helicopter” parent – always hovering, always micromanaging, quick to defend the child regardless of circumstance, even quicker to attack anyone, even the other parent, who dares to defy the expected response.
I have no way of knowing whether Scottoline intends the reader to feel this way or whether she is trying to present the image of a woman who has had to pick up the pieces after the other parent has fallen aside. For a few paragraphs, Pam really does seem to be an involved and caring parent as well as a supportive wife who still manages a highly public and successful career. But it is only one more scene before we are bombarded with the image of a woman with serious power and control issues, a woman who serves as judge and jury over her family every bit as much as she does over the defendants who come before her in court.
Her aggressiveness is merely annoying at first but it becomes absolutely toxic to the situation and to her family within short order. And 300 pages of an unsympathetic main protagonist acting in this manner is not only teeth-grinding, it is overkill. Ryan expresses it succinctly when he repeatedly calls her “Judge Mom.”
DEFINITE SPOILERS FOLLOW:
My second problem with the book is the ending. As the events following the tragedy unfold, Scottoline pushes her characters harder and harder psychologically. The marriage is circling the drain; the police are closing in on Jake for multiple homicides; Ryan is only one step away from suicide and an unseen witness to the accident is blackmailing them. The storyline is driving forward, logically, consistently, inexorably, picking up speed toward the climax as if it were a freight train headed for a blind curve with no brakes.
And, I must say, that train wreck is spectacular. Angry words, screaming taunts, defiance, then gunshots ring out. You sit there staring at the words, wishing it wasn’t happening this way but knowing that all the lies, all the “keeping quiet” has led to this very point.
And then, Scottoline just throws it all away. She takes 300 pages of soul-jarring drama and flushes it down the sewer. It takes just one page, one sentence on that page, for Scottoline to write in a deus ex machina and the unraveling, bleeding world of Jake Buckman simply rights itself – the jogger was already dead before Jake and Ryan hit her.
Suddenly all that remains is a long convalescence from two gut shots, a lot of public shunning, a few fines, and a little bit of community service for leaving the scene of an accident and withholding information from the police. And, even though she has concealed multiple crimes, Pam is not even censored by the Bar, let alone put in danger of losing her license. She simply gets to resign her judgeship.
And to top off the unnatural twist in the story line, Scottoline takes Pam’s character and turns it 180 degrees off her true north. For the entire book, she has been a veritable shrew and an angry, spiteful, blaming witch. Then, again, within the space of one page, Scottoline writes her into a loving wife with no lingering animosity towards Jake, a loving mother who no longer micro-manages her son’s education and a happy lawyer who loves being a free-lance nine-to-five drone. I realize that, with incentive, people really can change, but from shrew to Stepford wife is a bit much here.
To her credit, Scottoline does do a tremendous job of explaining the laws of Pennsylvania pertinent to this story. Her research into the process surrounding a Federal appointment and into the workings of wire transfers is clearly evident and applied in a believable manner. And she makes an excellent point about not moving away to start over – Facebook will follow you, will find you anywhere, and will expose all your secrets anyway.
BUT – if the premise of this story had happened to you or me – and believe me, it could so easily happen to any one of us – the outcome for you or me would be vastly different. Quite frankly, you know it and so do I, no extenuating circumstances and no homicidal psychopath is going to suddenly materialize and save us from any misguided and felonious choice to “Keep Quiet.
I received a copy of this novel through the Goodreads First Reads program. That fact did not influence my opinion of the work in the slightest.
Cover Art From Goodreads