The Other Side of Everything from Lauren Doyle Owens explores the lives of three characters as a series of murders takes place in a Florida community. That’s a one-sentence description of the book for those who want a quick summary. But for those who want a bit more, read on…
The Other Side of Everything concerns crime, murders to be precise, and so the book may be categorized as a crime novel and will probably end up on the mystery shelf in bookshops. But while this emotionally rich novel includes crime, the plot is more concerned with how residents in Seven Springs, this run-down, post-boom Florida community, react to the murders and how the murders impact their lives.
Under scrutiny here are three characters: Bernard, a widower in his late seventies, a lonely man who lives with regrets. Then there’s middle-aged artist Amy who is not coping mentally following a cancer diagnosis which resulted in a hysterectomy and a double mastectomy. Finally there’s Maddie, a fifteen year old girl who lives with her mostly absent father and teenage brother after her mother abandoned them. All three of these people cope with their unhappy lives in various ways, and the murders pull them, ultimately, out of the ruts they’ve sunk into.
The Florida housing tract still contains some of the ‘originals‘–people who moved there in the 50s and 60s, but many of them died in the decades that passed. The first victim is one of the originals, and as other murders take place, it’s clear that someone is targeting elderly women. Bernard, who exists on frozen burritos and ice cream sandwiches, reconnects with Danny, an old friend he hasn’t seen in years even though they live just a few blocks apart. This visit forces memories of his prime to the surface:
Bernard looked around the sunporch, hunting for familiar objects. They used to play canasta out on the porch on hot summer nights in the days before air-conditioning. They would smoke cigarettes and laugh and drink. He could feel the ghosts of them all in that room, he could almost hear their lighthearted chatter, almost smell the cigarettes and beer.
Amy, alone now that her architect husband left to go work in San Juan, becomes obsessed with the first murder. The elderly victim lived right behind her, and Amy begins painting a series of murder scenes which are so realistic, she becomes a suspect.
Maddie who cuts herself to redirect her emotional pain, waitresses at the local diner where men try to get her attention. For the most part, her prickliness acts as armour, but then she accepts a ride from a young man named Nate whose predatory behaviour is magnified by Maddie’s lack of parental protection.
I’m not going to mince words here: I loved this novel for strong characterizations, and its exploration of pain and loneliness. The murders and the subsequent solution were the least satisfying aspect of the story, but for this reader, that matters little. The characters are well-formed, believable people, caught in sadness, depression and regrets. Bernard hears the voices of both his dead wife and his dead mistress Vera, and while he understands that he made his wife unhappy (and didn’t deserve her kindness) he still has unresolved questions about Vera’s death. Amy spends hours looking at adoption websites:
She hovered over the photo of a three-year-old girl, and lingered for a bit, noting the girl’s tired eyes and crooked smile. Amy imagined making breakfast for her, and making up songs about tying shoes, teaching her how to paint, and walking her to school. She imagined a life in an instant, and, just as fast, it was gone.
A smattering of wry humour appears through Bernard’s friend, the impressible Danny, who doesn’t use his air conditioning because it’s a “waste of money” and who thinks sweating is “like exercise without the work.” Danny loves being a widower even though all the “lookers” are dead.
“But these are the best years, aren’t they? This is what we did all that other stuff for.”
Bernard was taken aback. These were hardly the best years. They were more like purgatory.
“Think about it,” Danny continued, a finger in the air, “our wives are gone, we can do whatever we want, with whomever we want. We can have whiskey sours for breakfast! We can look at internet porn! In-ter-net porn!”
In contrast, Bernard thinks that “impotence is the greatest gift of old age“ and now, in retrospect realises how much energy he wasted “thinking about sex.”
Three people: Bernard, Amy, and Maddie. Three people at different stages of their lives, all struggling with incidents flung at them: death, cancer, and abandonment. All three pried out of their lives by a murder investigation.
The rain was soft at first–tapping politely on the flat white roofs; dribbling down blades of grass; collecting in droplets on large, saucer-like leaves. Then, the rain began to drive, battering the large, bushy fronds of cabbage palms, disturbing delicate Bougainvillea blossoms, and hammering the ground, causing mud to rise among perfect blades of St. Augustine grass, creating puddles where the driveways met the streets of Seven Springs, Florida.
An aside, this novel was NOT told through multiple voices. I’m getting a bit tired of the device to be honest. Now I’m waiting for the next book from Lauren Doyle Owens. She’s shown how much can be done with crime.