Caitlin Mullen’s debut novel – and Edgar Award Winner – Please See Us is well written, but it took me forever to read. I don’t know: is that a bad thing?
Twenty-something Lily has run away from NYC and a messy breakup with about-to-be-famous sculptor Matthew and landed back home in Atlantic City. She needs a job but “it was unsettling to be in Atlantic City again — coming home had filled [her] with an inarticulate dread.” She takes a job as a receptionist at a hotel spa, a job she doesn’t want but needs if she wants to get back to her life, a new life, in New York.
Ava, aka Clara Voyant, is a teenager who reads tarot cards and palms on the strip. She lives with her aunt, Des, above the shop. They’re behind on their rent and Ava lives with the dream of saving enough money to join her mother in California. When the novel opens, Ava reads the cards of a man looking for his niece, Julie. Ava has seen the missing posters around town, but she doesn’t want to mislead the man.
I didn’t want to disappoint him with the truth: what I saw was limited, out of my control. I couldn’t just call up information from the universe as easily as plugging a question into a Google search.
Ava and Lily’s paths cross and soon they are working sort of together to find out what has happened to the missing girl who, turns out, is one of several missing girls. Of course, the reader will already know that the outcome of the man’s search probably won’t be good. The novel’s opening lines tell us that “By the second week of June, there are two dead women laid out like tallies in the stretch of marsh just behind the Sunset Motel.”
Mullen’s novel meanders through the interior lives of Ava and Lily and also, Luis, a deaf and mute janitor who works at the spa. We also get a glimpse into the lives of the girls who end up in the marsh, poignant snapshots into who they are, and the circumstances and choices which led to this most horrifying end.
Ava and Lily are compelling characters, both young enough – especially Ava – to use poor judgement and make bad decisions. Please See Us definitely has a something to say about the violence against women, and how society sees and judges women who, often through no fault of their own, end up using their bodies as a means to an end. (Frankly, the most despicable character in this whole thing is Ava’s Aunt Des who essentially pimps her out to make rent money.) There is a mystery here, but it’s a s-l-o-w burn and might not appeal to readers who want things to move along a little more quickly.