In the tradition of the book, let’s start with the end and go backwards (although not completely, since I don’t have that much skill to craft such a tight narrative). But let’s just say I adored the book, and we’ll go from there.
First of all, I have never lived in a small town in my life. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be to know the names of all your neighbours in the same street, let alone in the same town. And definitely not have people remember you for all your shenanigans a decade ago and have them define you even in the present day. Yet this is exactly the world that is introduced in All the Missing Girls, along with the very unique storytelling method.
The plot premise is very simple—a girl disappears from a small American town that is connected to the disappearance of another girl ten years ago, and the main players in the story are somehow connected to both incidents. Yet Miranda makes this mystery story thrilling with a new storytelling format—by telling the story backwards. I am utterly intrigued by this unique method, and I think it serves the story quite well.
It is like peeling an onion—after one layer, there are only another million layers waiting to be revealed. Miranda manages to heighten the tension this way, as events and individuals are referenced in a casual manner but are not elaborated upon until further in the novel. This manages to pique my curiosity as I wonder how all the previous events will connect and come together as a cohesive story. Along with the story being told backwards, there are also flashbacks or explanations of what occurred ten years before that leads to the disappearance of Corinne. The pacing of the novel is excellent, and I am always eager to continue finding out what happened the day before. There is almost a sense after each chapter there is a reset, since the story is told backwards and the chapter ends at the end of the day. Once the chapter ends a brand new day stretches before the reader, and it feels like that are multiple possibilities that can alter the outcome of the case, or at least alter the perception of the known facts.
However, this does not mean that the storytelling method is perfect. It is inevitable that many elements are deliberately written to confuse the reader and to act as red herrings. This I can live with, as it is a mystery and I like having the suspense throughout the book. What I find to be annoying is that there are specific references that are mentioned in the later days but are never properly explained or elaborated on afterwards, causing plenty of loose ends. For example, Nicolette and Corinne are best friends along with a third girl named Bailey. Bailey is referenced very briefly, and Nicolette cites this is due to the two girls drifting apart after the disappearance of Corinne. Yet Bailey appears sporadically in a couple of scenes and takes certain actions that require at least a strong connection if not a friendship with Nicolette, but it is never explained and instead Bailey is never referenced at all in the latter half of the novel. This is just one detail, and there are many details that are given the brush aside treatment in this story; it will not hamper the enjoyment of the overall story as well as understanding what happened to the characters, but it does cause frustration for people who want to know more about how the various small details fit together.
The strongest parts of the book for me are definitely the narrator as well as the setting of the book. Nicolette is a fabulous and highly interesting character, and has many complexities and contradictions about her. She is part of the onion symptom as she constantly reveals new information about herself through all various interactions with people that she meets throughout the book. At the beginning of the book, she is a twenty-eight year old woman who has escaped Cooley Ridge—her town—for ten years and reluctantly goes back due to her father. She has already survived the disappearance of a best friend and left her past in Cooley Ridge, including her relationships with her brother and the rest of her posse. As she immerses herself back in Cooley Ridge over a span of 15 days, her brittleness begins to show and the life that Nicolette reinvents herself in the present does not fit with her past. I love her strong attachments to her town and to her group of friends despite her constant denial, and her courage to confront the past before as she accepts herself for who she is. There is a reoccurring theme that one cannot abandon or outrun their past, and I think that Miranda showcases this wonderfully throughout Nicolette. I completely understand her even though I do not relate to her at all times—she is the not-really-mean-girl-but-definetely-part-of-the-popular-it-gang-girl—and while she is not the most likeable person I always want to know more about her.
As for Cooley Ridge itself, I think it is an excellent illustration of what a small town is like. Gossipy people with memories that stretch back an eternity, rumours and innuendos become facts and urban legends, and judgment is passed before evidence is collected. It is in this seemingly idyllic town on the outside—how can it not be gorgeous, it is in the mountains and it seems always sunny—that are more than a few skeletons hidden and that some great tragedies take place.
This book is not perfection though—aside from Nicolette, all the characters are pretty generic and indistinguishable at first. To be honest, the only person that I can clearly distinguish aside from Nicolette is her finance Everett, and that is because he is meant to be different. He is clearly supposed to be the outsider, the sophisticated efficient WASP-boyfriend that cannot possibly comprehend all the intricacies of living in a place such as Cooley Ridge. Which is a pity since it seems like all the other character play such important roles in the story. While I eventually manage to differentiate Daniel and Tyler, they are still similar enough that I will have to squint to get a better understanding of them as people.
The fascination with Corinne—the girl who cause the first major mayhem as well as a group of friends to disintegrate—is never made clear in the book. My impression of her is that she is a highly unstable mean-girl that always wants to be at the centre of attention, but I fail to see why everyone else—particularly Nicolette—bend backwards to cater to her whims. I do think that part of the problem is due to Nicolette’s voice and part is because Corinne is just not a charismatic person. While Nicolette does a great job examining herself and her demons and her struggles, she is not good at conveying information about other people and since the entire book is from her POV, the way that she paints Corinne is pretty biased as well as perplexing.
So both the pretty cover as well as its startling premise prompts me to pick up this book – a mystery unfolding backwards. I have never read this premise before, and I am absolutely excited to find out if it can be executed properly. I am particularly interested since I have played around with an idea of writing a story that will unfold backwards. I finish this book in a couple of sittings, and it is a highly entertaining mystery that examines all the skeletons in a town.