REVIEW: Dismantled by Jennifer McMahon

25 Apr

Jennifer McMahon is one of those authors that I knew, before I even read a single word of any of her books, that I would love everything she wrote. Which is why I own every book she’s published. I hadn’t gotten around to reading any of them – story of my reading life – but I knew that once I did, I’d be hooked. And I was right. McMahon writes what I would consider literary mysteries, in the vein of Sophie Hannah, Kate Atkinson, and Tana French (notably all women).  I love mysteries and thrillers – they’re definitely my kind of brain candy when I need a break from heavier fiction – but these authors, including McMahon, write the kind of mysteries that make me feel a little bit like Jessica Seinfeld is cooking me dinner: delicious and seemingly unhealthy, but there’s veggies and good-for-you stuff hidden inside.  That might not make a lot of sense, but somehow McMahon takes a genre that is traditionally plot-driven to the core – a what-happens-next suspense – and gives equal weight to the characters, to the point that who-is-that-character-really is just as important to the story and the ending as what-happens-next.

Dismantled is an excellent example of this style of mystery writing and suspense development. Published in 2009, I received a copy during Book Expo America last May from the publisher, HarperCollins, and had a chance to meet Jennifer during a blogger event they held. I may have gone a little fangirl on her, but she was gracious and friendly, and remembered me a few days later when I approached her during her signing time and she was busy with other BEA attendees. Even though I probably would still love her books if she were mean, the fact that she’s lovely in person only makes me more willing to read and review her books. Before I get into Dismantled, here’s a summary from Goodreads:

Dismantlement = Freedom

Henry, Tess, Winnie, and Suz banded together in college to form a group they called the Compassionate Dismantlers. Following the first rule of their manifesto “To understand the nature of a thing, it must be taken apart” these daring misfits spend the summer after graduation in a remote cabin in the Vermont woods committing acts of meaningful vandalism and plotting elaborate, often dangerous, pranks. But everything changes when one particularly twisted experiment ends in Suz’s death and the others decide to cover it up.

Nearly a decade later, Henry and Tess are living just an hour’s drive from the old cabin. Each is desperate to move on from the summer of the Dismantlers, but their guilt isn’t ready to let them go. When a victim of their past pranks commits suicide apparently triggered by a mysterious Dismantler-style postcard it sets off a chain of eerie events that threatens to engulf Henry, Tess, and their inquisitive nine-year-old daughter, Emma.

Is there someone who wants to reveal their secrets? Is it possible that Suz did not really die or has she somehow found a way back to seek revenge?

Full of white-knuckle tension with deeply human characters caught in circumstances beyond their control, Jennifer McMahon’s gripping story and spine-tingling plot prove that she is a master at weaving the fear of the supernatural with the stark realities of life.

This summary is a little misleading in terms of Henry and Tess’s daughter, Emma’s, role in this story. Emma is one of the sparks that ignites the plot and is a huge generator of the suspense that drives you toward the ending of the book. Emma is…troubled, to put it gently. She has two friends – one imaginary, and one that takes advantage of her and manipulates her, to the point that I wanted to smack the friend – and she wants nothing more than to keep her family together and happy. She means well, but in typical nine-year-old fashion, she has no idea the consequences of her actions and the fact that her parents had a life before she was born that might be less than perfect. The characters – Henry, Tess, Emma, and all the rest of them – seem to be co-existing in universes that hover nearby but they seem to miss each, making glancing blows off each other and accepting perception as truth because the risk of confrontation or truth-telling is too scary. It’s a frustrating prospect as a reader to know most of the truth that each of the characters carries individually, but to not be able to make them tell each other. Then the fact that the author is still hiding major plot points from the reader and manages to surprise you when you think you know (or have figured out) what the end result will be.

I was completely sucked in by these characters and I kept hoping that they would all just get it together and talk to each other because they all had so many secrets from each other. Somehow what stood out the most was not this horrific thing that happened in the past, but the resulting dysfunction and how these characters pulled their mistrust into their everyday, present lives without even realizing it. The characters were generally fully developed, though I did have questions about a few plot holes at the end – but not enough to ruin the rest of the book. One thing I think I would have enjoyed more if I had a more attuned artistic sensibility is the concept of what art is. Every single character in the book is an artist of some sort, and the idea that “dismantling” something is to find it’s true meaning and taking it apart is the way to discover the essence of what art is. In theory, I kind of get it, but my artistic eye is as a viewer, not as a creator and I had to level a measure of suspension of disbelief to accept this fundamental truth of the book.

No matter your opinion or artistic sensibility, this is highly recommended, especially for lovers of mystery and suspense who are looking for a more complete story experience than you’d typically get from a run-of-the-mill mystery. This would be a fantastic beach read as well, if you’re planning your summer vacation. It’s also great to have read this one in anticipation of the May17th release of McMahon’s next book, Don’t Breathe a Word. (Pre-order from that link or see the HarperCollins page with more pre-order links here). I’ve got a pre-release galley waiting to be read and after reading Dismantled, I can’t wait to pick it up.


4 Responses to “REVIEW: Dismantled by Jennifer McMahon”

  1. C_Girl April 25, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    Ooohhh literary mysteries are one of my favorite genres, and Tana and Kate are my favorites. (Just read the new Kate Atkinson about Jackson Brodie and it was fantastic. I’m always so sad when they are over.) I can’t wait to read this!

  2. Jenny April 25, 2011 at 8:16 pm #

    Ooh I love how you compared these types of mysteries to Jessica Seinfeld’s hidden food thing… great metaphor! I LOOVED this book!!

  3. Lisa Almeda Sumner May 1, 2011 at 7:17 pm #

    I have Promise Not To Tell on my shelf, another Jennifer McMahon novel that looks pretty creepy. I’m waiting til summer to read it, but now I have an idea of what to look forward to. And by summer I’ll be ready for brain candy, believe me…


  1. Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Recommended Books « a home between pages - May 3, 2011

    […] oh so quickly! Also, I need to just share a squee-worthy moment – I tweeted my review of DISMANTLED by Jennifer McMahon, and she tweeted me back to say thank you!! Love […]

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