My rating: ★★★
Discussing Lisa McMann’s Dead to You under the assumption others have read it seems far easier than writing a review for people who haven’t. I will reveal spoilers and kill a reader’s curiosity if I prod further than the summary, which informs: seven-year-old Ethan is abducted off the sidewalk in front of his home. After nine years missing, the De Wilde family finally reunites with Ethan, now sixteen. But is it really their Ethan? It’s a question that lingers throughout the book, and it’s meant to be a force compelling you to continue reading.
Quickly paced, this books shuffles around the mystery of Ethan’s identity and past, and instead focuses on the ever-growing mountain of family tension. The abduction took the De Wilde’s world and flipped it upside down. While Gracie’s birth (“the replacement child”) may have put them as close to normalcy the family ever expected to reach, Ethan’s return sends the disquiet booming. Blake cannot understand why his older brother got into a stranger’s car, does not understand how Ethan’s memory as Ethan De Wilde is absent, and sets out to prove Ethan as a fraud. Adding to the drama, Blake blames Ethan for the abduction’s aftereffects, harboring (understandable) anger for feeling like the neglected child. Gracie–the youngest who was born after Ethan’s kidnapping–is adorable in her ignorance, like any child too young to fully grasp what is happening. As a witness to the life before and after the abduction, Blake does not share Gracie’s blissful fortune.
Ethan’s father proved difficult to assess at first because he’s quite a distant character, and I can’t be sure of his initial thoughts. Does he think this stranger is his missing child? He does appear to trust that Ethan is (at first), but doubt sprawls across his face and flashes in his eyes. It’s not always present or has lasting prominence, but it’s there drifting in the background like an afterthought. Hesitation virtually non-existent, the mother is willing to accept Ethan as her missing son and almost instantly denies a DNA test. She does, without a doubt, believe this boy is hers, and a mother knows her own child… Right? Or, maybe, she is a mother seeing and believing what she wants to. She’s so desperate to have her son back that she has gone blind, swatting away anything to the contrary like a pesky fly. But it is a pesky fly, one that troubles not just three of the De Wilde family, but Ethan himself.
Dead to You has been called a page-turner, and in a way it is. Typical emotion appropriate for the situation oozes out of each character, and despite that the narrative is Ethan’s perspective, everyone else is easy to see through and sympathize with. At the same time, McMann does not dwell too heavily on the negative aspects and bounces between Ethan’s romantic feelings toward Cami, what Blake’s rejection stirs up, and anxiety over Ethan’s new versus old life.
However, this story is nothing more to me than a family trying to maintain balance and composure while suppressing the idea that their real son is still lost. Ethan does not remember a single thing about his life pre-abduction, and what he does know comes from the De Wilde’s website. The only life Ethan remembers is the one he spent with his kidnapper, who, in time, abandoned Ethan at a shelter. He is someone who aches to be loved, and he finds that affection in Belleville with the De Wildes. The truth to the skepticism surrounding Ethan’s identity is made undeniable, for the hints make it all too clear beginning in chapter one. For me, reading this was like reading the manuscript of a Lifetime movie without the campy ending. What more is there to this story?
The book jacket says:
But there’s something that’s keeping his [Ethan’s] memory blocked.
I kept waiting for the unspeakable “something” to show up, but it never came. There is a moment when a reporter interviews Ethan and I paused for thought:
Alexandra: Were you harmed? Abused?
Me: I guess you could say not physically harmed by my abductor, not really. But I don’t want to discuss that.
Alexandra: Not physically? What do you mean?
By that excerpt alone you may think, Was he sexually abused? It certainly crossed my mind. Victims of sexual abuse can feel hushed into silence by shame, embarrassment, and stigma, and it easily qualifies as something Ethan wouldn’t eagerly speak about. But the topic is dropped and never questioned or further poked at, so we can assume he was never harmed in such a way.
So, then, what is unspeakable? I don’t know. Ethan was neglected his entire life, and I understand how difficult it can be for a child–anyone, really–to admit to feeling unloved. He also doesn’t want to present his motherly figure (who’s his presumed abductor) in a negative light. But is all that really unspeakable? I don’t think it is, nor do I think Ethan’s longing to feel cared for and accepted are unspeakable. In my view, “unspeakable” hints toward something uncomfortable for its horrific nature.
This book made many poor attempts to keep me guessing about Ethan, but I had all the answers needed just by reading the first few chapters. The end confirms Ethan’s identity, yet it feels so abrupt that it’s difficult to acknowledge as the conclusion. I know the story after the ending is not the story McMann wanted to tell (or she would have written about that instead!), but given a decent number of extra pages and the end may have felt more final.
A little frustrated by the predictability, what I think McMann does accomplish is a strong sense of realistic fiction. No moments felt fabricated, as each character is presented with authenticity and made believable through their unique complexions. Although McMann doesn’t present anything new or different in Dead to You, not allowing it to stand out among many other similar stories, it is a fair way to pass time.