I stumbled upon Cop Town by Karin Slaughter about five years ago and really enjoyed it–much more than I was expecting. So, when I saw one of Slaughter’s latest books, Pieces of Her (2018), out on book shelves, I put it on hold at the library. Like Cop Town, Pieces of Her is a page-turning fest of violence and intrigue. I think I read it in about one day, and I had a hard time putting it down. However, I still prefer Cop Town, which felt a little more realistic and was more immediately relevant to my life.
Andrea (Andy) Oliver is a 31-year-old 911-dispatcher who lives with her mother. She’s not doing much with her life and certainly doesn’t have any direction or control over it. Her mother, Laura, is a divorced speech pathologist living in a coastal retirement community. The book begins with a scene of sudden and terrifying violence. Laura’s response to the violence causes Andy to reconsider everything she once thought about her mother.
Andy ends up going on a road trip that forces her to grow up as well as discover and face the person her mother really was. The book alternates between Andy’s predicament in the present day and her mother’s true story–both of which I found very interesting. I was immediately caught up in the story and I enjoyed Slaughter’s writing. My only complaint is that I kept getting sidetracked by little (or big) details that didn’t feel right to me.
Andy and Laura are eating lunch when they are interrupted by an eighteen-year-old boy angry at his girlfriend for breaking up with him. He comes into the diner, shooting his ex-girlfriend and her mother and then turning the gun on others. When he turns the gun on Andy, Laura calmly steps between them, telling Andy to run. The boy stabs her in the hand and Laura uses the knife (still in her hand) to stab him in the neck, eventually killing him.
Andy cannot understand how her mother is capable of such violence, and she is only more confused when her mother summarily kicks Andy out of her house. But when there is another attack and another dead body, Laura tells Andy to find an old storage unit, take some money and the car and drive west. Her life is in danger. Suddenly Andy is on her own, fearful of being followed, and trying to figure out the truth about the woman she’s known all her life.
Eventually we discover that Laura is actually Jane Queller, the daughter of a billionaire pharmaceutical company owner who ran group homes for the mentally ill. Jane is young and unhappy. She had to deal with constant sexual and physical abuse from her father as she was growing up. She and her brother Andy are enticed by the charismatic Nick Harp to join “The Army of the Changing World”–something of a cult that reminded me very much of the group that kidnapped Patty Hearst. Nick has high ideals about changing the world, and Jane’s father is a good target. Not only abusive, he also fraudulently kicked people out of group homes and charged for deceased patients in order to make more money.
In the end, both Andy and Laura/Jane are able to find some kind of independence. Laura/Jane is strong enough to eventually escape the clutches of Nick when her baby and brother are both in danger. And Andy becomes more independent and decisive as she goes on her journey. I thought the relationship between Jane and Nick was especially chilling. Their interactions are immediately uncomfortable, but the reader doesn’t realize how bad he really is until later.
This was all really good, but what bothered me were some of the details. There was a lot of talk about Laura and Andy worried about being charged with murder when they were clearly acting in self defense. If a guy walks into a diner with a loaded gun, murders at least two people, threatens your daughter, and then stabs you with a knife, there is nothing you could do that wouldn’t be self defense. Additionally, if a man breaks into your house and is torturing your mother, then you are well within your rights to kill him. There are certainly grey areas when it comes to claiming self defense, but these are some of the most black and white cases out there. It drove me crazy that Slaughter kept saying “murdered him in cold blood” or “killed a kid in cold blood.” She was making all these distinctions with what Laura said and what direction she shifted when it did not matter. It was self defense.
Some other nitpicks: How did “The Army of the Changing World” get their money that they had stashed all over the place? Were they stealing from the mentally ill as well? How was no foul play suspected when a man is found dead in the bay with a significant head wound? Why did Andy not need or worry about having a license when she checked into her first motel although she used her mother’s fake I.D. the rest of the time? How did Mike go from being knocked out on the ground to finding and following Andy on the road? Why was Laura/Jane okay with kidnapping a professor that railed against her father and probably would have been an asset to their cause?
In the end, the story and the characters more than kept my attention. However, the distraction of all those details that didn’t quite fit kept me from enjoying it quite as much as Cop Town. In the end, though, I am very impressed by Slaughter’s writing and storytelling, and I’m sure I’ll be reading another book by her soon.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.