Six were taken. Eleven years later, five return. Five teenagers, maps in their possession and no memories of who they are, where they are, or why they have been left at a playground return to the town they disappeared from in kindergarten. Even though they have no memory of the past eleven years, they read, write, and speak like typical 16-year-olds. Yet there is no explanation as to why Max, the sixth child to disappear, is not with them. Here starts the mystery of The Leaving.
Altebrando uses multiple points of view to draw the reader into the story. We hear from two of the five returned teenagers—Scarlett and Lucas—as they navigate their return as well as Avery, Max’s younger sister, who longs to find her brother. Scarlett remembers Lucas and Lucas remembers Scarlett, but the homes and families they return to seem to be strangers to them. We are participants in Lucas and Scarlett working to remember who they are and where they have been for the past eleven years. Max’s sister Avery allows us to see what it is like to have those who were missing returned, and yet still not have answers about where your loved one went, or why he was taken. Her memories of events and the past eleven years unfold as Scarlett and Lucas get closer to finding the answers they desire.
Altebrando successfully creates different characters’ voices through short chapters, which drives the urgency of finding out what happened to these characters and why they have no memories of the past eleven years. She uses different fonts and textual placement to further show how it feels to be without memory and without a sense of identity.
The strength of The Leaving is its complexity. Although the fast pace and romantic elements will draw teens in, Altebrando tackles more than just a missing teen and what happened to the six children eleven years ago. She deftly addresses issues of how memory is linked to identity and if erasing memory really is the key to dealing with tragedy. Are painful memories and experiences really worth eliminating? Altebrando’s use of a thriller and mystery to emphasize the value of childhood and how what we learn as children is linked to who we are and who we become creates a strength to this novel that will draw readers in and pushes for you to rethink some of these memories in your own life.
Yet, this novel was not without flaws. It may be that the lack of memories of the characters pushed them to be not as fleshed out and complex as they could have been. There seemed to be no purpose beyond solving their mystery to motivate them. This could be linked to the novel taking place over a period of a little over a week, but there still seemed to be a lack of something in the characters to make them complex. Although the plot-driven aspects of the novel were what made me finish the 400 pages in one day, it also felt like it finished too quickly. The suspense that built throughout the novel ended in what felt for me a conclusion that didn’t seem to have enough time. In short, it left me wanting more.
Even with its faults, I would still recommend The Leaving to anyone interested in a plot- driven novel that is a great beach read. Although the novel could have done with fewer characters who at times became a distraction and complication, the themes of memory and childhood make for some thoughtfulness after completion.
Note: This review was first published in PCA/ACA Mystery & Detective Reading List (Fall 2016)