Van Heugten’s debut novel, Saving Max, is the story of single mother, Danielle, whose son, Max, is accused of murder while in a psychiatric facility for evaluation. Danielle has taken Max from Manhattan, where she works as a lawyer, to the renowned Maitland clinic in Plano, Iowa, where Max can be assessed. Although he’s already been diagnosed with Aspergers (a mild form of autism), Max’s behaviour has become increasingly more troublesome (so we’re told) and Danielle is out of options.
Once at Maitland, Danielle meets Marianne, another mother whose son, Jonas, is there to be assessed. Jonas has several severe problems including being non-verbal. Danielle admires Marianne’s devotion to her son and constantly questions her own abilities as a mother. When Jonas turns up dead and Max is found holding the smoking gun (figuratively speaking), her mother lion instinct kicks in and she stops at nothing to get to the bottom of what really happened.
Saving Max isa rather pedestrian whodunit. The characters are stock figures: Doaks, for example, is the hard-boiled ex-cop who now works as a private investigator. It’s almost impossible to believe he’s never used a computer yet he claims not to know what “googled” means. He says “ain’t” and calls Danielle “cookie”. Then there’s the guy she slept with once after meeting him at a bar. Theirs is a love connection – which we’re supposed to buy. In a completely contrived twist of fate, he end up being the lawyer hired by Danielle’s NYC law firm to represent her. Danielle herself is resourceful and smart, but I never connected with her – not even as a mother. And this is 2010, am I really expected to believe that she’d get a poodle perm and wear pant suits?
Then there are some problems with the story – little things a reader shouldn’t notice if they are wholly invested in the book. van Heugten has Danielle on a flight back from Phoenix where she has gone to retrieve some evidence. In one chapter Danielle is buckling in as the plane begins its descent. A couple paragraphs later, she’s asking for a coffee and settling in to continue reading the evidence she’s found. A couple chapters later, she’s working her way through the traffic in Des Moines; two chapters after that, she’s on the plane again. The author also compensates for showing, by telling the reader things when it suits the story. Danielle knows, for example, the nursing schedule at 11pm. How? I hate when I notice stuff like that.
The story itself is written in present tense, perhaps to give the reader a sense of immediacy and urgency – but the story just isn’t propulsive. I understand how desperate Danielle must be to clear her son, but the pieces of this puzzle just fit together too neatly. And the ending is trite.
All that said, I had no trouble reading the book. I think van Heugten might have the goods. Her background as a lawyer showed in the court scenes. The writing was strightforward, although not particularly original. The story had legs. What this book lacked, for me, was any really connection to the people who inhabited its pages. Ultimately, if you don’t care about the characters, you’re not going to care about their fate.