The Lost Girls is technically a mystery: In 1935, in a very small town in remote northern Minnesota, six-year-old Emily Evans vanishes. She is never found. What could possibly have happened to her?
But in many ways, this book is about so much more than the mystery of Emily's disappearance. The title holds a couple of clues: "Girls" is, after all, plural, and aren't there a number of ways to be lost?
Emily's older sister, Lucy, was 11 the year Emily disappeared, and her older sister, Lilith, was 13. They grew up spending their summers at the lake house with their mother, while their stern, religious father comes up for weekends but works back at home during the week. That's just fine with the girls. He's a bit of a killjoy, to put it mildly. Their mother is somewhat off the rails too, but the lake community has been a haven, especially for Lucy and Lilith.
In 1999, Lucy is all alone, her parents and Lilith dead. Lilith had a daughter (Maurie) and granddaughter (Justine) whom Lucy has only met briefly, but as she draws up her final will, she leaves the lake house and a tidy sum of cash to Justine--along with a notebook detailing the events that happened in that long-ago summer.
Also in 1999, Justine is living in San Diego, a single mother with two daughters, barely eking out a living. They live with Justine's boyfriend Patrick, who has some rather overly controlling tendencies, even as he often seems comforting and reliable. When Justine gets the news of the unexpected inheritance, she barely thinks twice about packing up the car with some of their belongings and her daughters, not telling Patrick the news or where she's going.
The lake house does not at first seem to be the answer to Justine's problems. It's old, remote, cold, and her daughters hate the local school. But Justine, timid and recovering from being under Patrick's control for too long, begins to find some peace, even as she deals with issues with her daughter. But then her mother, Maurie, comes to visit. Maurie was far from the ideal mother while Justine was growing up, and that hasn't changed.
The book progresses with chapters alternating between Justine's life in 1999 and Lucy's memoir of that tragic summer of 1935. As we get deeper in and learn more about both sets of lives, it becomes increasingly clear how Maurie became the wreck of a mother that she was, which of course in turn affected how Justine turned out. But we also learn about Lilith and Lucy during a bewildering summer of Lucy's youth, a time when the older sister who was always her closest friend and playmate begins turning to other teenagers and boys rather than taking up the old games she used to play with Lucy. There's a lot that's simmering beneath the surface of these plots, but to detail more would be to spoil.
I found both stories compelling and could hardly put the book down. I ended up so worried for Lucy and Lilith, as well as Justine and her daughters, that solving the mystery of Emily's disappearance seemed secondary. But when the reader learns the truth (and no, I'm not spoiling anything), it sheds light on so many things beyond Emily herself. I guessed at pieces of the mystery early on, but not the whole picture, which was both shocking and yet completely believable.
This is a debut novel, and it's so very accomplished. The characters were all fleshed out, even some of the minor ones. Young nails the kinds of petty animosities that can exist in small towns for generations and how they can affect lives, as in this part where Justine reflects on Maurie's contentious relationship with the town:
"Was it really so simple? Had her mother's miserable fate been decided before her birth by the prejudices of a small town and the malice of a reluctant mother-in-law? After all, her own fate had been decided by a great-aunt she'd barely known--another woman who'd decided to ignore her relationship to Maurie."
Young also doesn't shy away from things sisters do to and for each other. There is girlish cruelty in this book that's breathtaking, but all too realistic.
My only quibbles were a typo that made me chuckle--while the bulk of the story is told in a fictional Minnesota town, the author sprinkles in town names from that general area. I grew up in this part of the state, so it was fun to see the names, but Ms. Young, it's "Mahnomen," not "Mahnomet." The other quibble came from how the characters constantly put the word "the" in front of things like Walmart and Safeway, as in: "We went to the Walmart." That's not how people in Minnesota talk; we say, "We went to Walmart." An author's bio I found somewhere notes that although she's not from Minnesota, her family made several vacation trips to northern Minnesota during her childhood. For the most part, she gets it right, and in the end, the quibbles don't matter, because this was a dark, intense, gripping read.