What do you see when you look at this picture?
Do you visualize a beautiful character even if you can’t see her face? Perhaps you assume that the blonde woman is attractive, and indeed, the author bases a big part of the story on the character’s physical appearance – that while her face draws attention, her social disorders pushes her to evade them. So what do you do when you encounter someone like her?
The Girl He Used To Know is a multi perspective, dual-timeline narrative that begins with Annika in 2001, reuniting with her college boyfriend, Jonathan in a Chicago grocery store and making plans to stay in contact. Later, she relates the seemingly random encounter to her therapist, so the reader is treated to the encounter as well as the woman’s retelling of it, and her pride with how she handled herself during the unexpected meeting. The story then goes back in time to 1991 so we can observe Annika as a college student at University of Illinois, living the moments that precipitated her relationship with Jonathan – its origins and demise. From this decade-old perspective, we learn that Annika is socially awkward, that she has a roommate with whom she has linear conversations, that she is the stereotypical introverted bookworm who finds social stimulation by mirroring fictional characters, following the rules of the chess games she wins easily, and caring for sick animals. These three pastimes are supposed to reflect all the aspects of Annika’s personality and while they are layered, the mundane references were’t very interesting to read so a big part of the book droned on. The author includes a lot of dialogue so we can see the college students meeting and trying to get to know each other. She also spends a little too much time detailing their sexual relationship, which I imagine might be representative of college experiences but that I wasn’t interested in, and the voyeuristic look at their interaction seems oddly banal, and only makes it more bewildering how these two fell in love. Even more odd were the flashbacks to some earlier time and another relationship that Annika had apparently dove into headfirst and there were several times when her personality issues didn’t seem consistent with any disorder I’ve read about.
The short chapters didn’t initially make sense to me, especially when it didn’t accomplish a change in narrative or timeline. The break seemed like something a paragraph indentation could have accomplished just as well, and even reading from the perspective of Jonathan didn’t seem to add anything to the story.
But… and this is a big change in tone…
… but this is a book that you have to read to the end to really appreciate and dare I say, love. The eventual emergence of Annika’s swanlike qualities are not entirely consistent with the ugly-duckling references but what a swan she becomes!
I’ve seen this book compared to last year’s hyped debut novel, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and I agree that both authors address the tendency for an abused person to seek solace and isolation even while they endure the necessary social situations. However, while both Eleanor and Annika are both thirty-something singletons, Annika is the classic beauty who can hide her social issues behind her pretty face, while Eleanor’s scars immediately announced her tortured experiences to the world. But honestly, the associations end there because Annika finds her own way in this one. I appreciated the character growth that the author conceived of, the risks that Annika took and the resolutions of those risks that were supposed to underscore that it’s okay to still have faith in society. It took a while to get there but the moral of the story made the journey worthwhile.
While I read an uncorrected proof from Netgalley, I saw a lot of lovable qualities in this book and hope to reread it after its publication.
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- Title: The Girl He Used to Know
- Author: Tracey Garvis Graves
- Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
- Genre: General Fiction
- Pages: 304
- Format: Hardcover
- Expected Publication Date: April 2, 2019