By Liza Palmer
Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: April 17, 2012
Frannie Reid, a speech therapist at a prestigious private school in Pasadena, is not looking forward to a new school year. Ryan, her boyfriend of two years around whom she has been constructing happily-ever-after fantasies, has revealed himself as the faithless jerk he is, and since he is head of the history department at the school where Frannie works, there’s no escaping him or the pitying looks of her colleagues. Her best friend Jill, also a speech therapist, tries unsuccessfully to instill more confidence in Frannie, who is convinced that Ryan’s defection means there is something wrong with her. The failure to strike a spark with any of the men with whom the married Jill keeps setting her up increases this idea. New friend Lisa, a science teacher with a direct charge attitude, makes Frannie rethink her own power to choose, but when the connection she feels with Sam, an architect working on a school expansion, becomes more fizzle than flame, the self-doubt takes over again.
Frannie compares herself unfavorably to Emma Dunham, the school’s new head, a beautiful blonde with an enviable fashion sense, a creative husband, and a gorgeous home in addition to her professional accomplishments. A few brief conversations with Emma make Frannie think that behind the perfection might be a woman she would enjoy knowing, but before that possibility can be tested, Emma is dead. Emma’s husband enters the faculty lounge where the staff is celebrating Emma’s birthday and shoots his wife in the head before turning his guns on others. Only the courageous action of Grady, another of the architects, Lisa, and particularly Sam, who kills the killer, saves the lives of Frannie and the other people in the room.
The story grows immensely darker and more complicated in the wake of the tragedy as all the characters must come to terms with their own brush with death and the horror that existed beneath Emma Dunham’s façade of the perfect life. In the immediate aftermath, Frannie and Sam have mind-blowing, life-affirming sex, and then Sam retreats, leaving Frannie angry and confused. Frannie must deal with her own guilty feelings that something she said led indirectly to Emma’s death. She takes care of Emma beloved dog, comforts Emma’s grieving sister, and searches for the truths of Emma’s life. Meanwhile, Sam, who is hailed as a hero, is struggling with his own feelings about having killed a man, feelings complicated by a personal past with a father who equated violence with manhood. Lisa and Grady, who were engaged in a hot but light-hearted affair before the shooting, are planning a wedding. Jill admits the pretenses that are part of her own marriage and deals with an unplanned pregnancy. Even Frannie’s favorite student is traumatized by Emma’s death.
More Like Her is not an easy read. The title suggests a typical chick lit book with self-absorbed characters moaning about flawed lives and failed loves, an impression reinforced by the cover and, to some degree, by the back cover copy. The opening scene, a frantic 911 call, undercuts this impression, but the reader is quickly returned to the internal monologues, female bonding, and relationship analysis synonymous with the genre. If you are a fan of such books, you will likely find the first half of the book more appealing than I did. Even in the first half, it’s clear that this author has a deft hand with characterization. The characters have a solid reality. The detail sharing, the expletive-loaded language, and the affection disguised as insults that pepper the conversations among Frannie and her friends are as familiar from life as from books. Sam with his Southern charm and quick humor is a hero to sigh for but not so faultless that he seems more dream man than potential boyfriend. Even so, the book is not much different from dozens of others.
The second half makes it a different book. The shooting is shocking on one level, but in a culture where senseless violence can invade homes, schools, and churches, a culture where beneath our usual social exchanges and involvement with the minutiae of daily life, we all fear there are no safe places, the shooting is all too credible. It is the possibility that increases the reader’s heart rate and shortens her breath. The reader understands that experiencing such tragedy must change one’s sense of self and approach to life. And after the distance between reader and character becomes heartbreakingly small, Palmer soothes and affirms the goodness of life with an ending to delight a romantic heart. Even Emma is given a kind of triumph. If you like books that move you out of your comfort zone, books that force characters and readers to see beneath the surfaces that shelter the vulnerable, the fearful, and the proud, I recommend you read this book. And if you’re tempted to give it up during the first 147 pages, I recommend you persist. It’s worth it.