I wasn’t surprised to read that Anna Snoekstra’s debut novel ONLY DAUGHTER has already been picked up by Hollywood. To me it read more like a movie script than a novel and whether you think that is a compliment or not will probably determine whether or not you’ll want to read it. For me it was quick and readable but never really delivered on its intriguing premise.
A young woman is caught shoplifting. To avoid being fingerprinted – when the truth about her past would come to light – she tells police she is Rebecca Winter. She’d seen a TV show about Winter a few months earlier: a teenage girl who had disappeared from her Canberra suburb a decade earlier. The young woman looked uncannily like Bec. At least enough like her to pretend for a few hours until she can escape police clutches. Only she doesn’t escape. Instead she goes home with Bec’s family. Because she really misses having a family.
We never learn the young woman’s real name so I’ll call her Pretend Bec. About half of the book is told from her perspective in 2014 in the days after she is ‘found’. Her parents, twin brothers and best friend all seem to accept that she is really Bec. Anything she doesn’t know she either fakes or pretends not to remember. Pretend Bec is enjoying having a family, especially a mother who looks after her. We don’t learn much about whatever it is that Pretend Bec is running away from but we do know her real mother has not been in the picture for some time. The other half of the book is real Bec’s story unfolding in 2003 in the days leading up to her disappearance. She is a fairly typical teenage girl with a best friend, a crush on an older boy at work and a couple of secrets that could lead to an unpleasant demise. Snoekstra pulls off this narrative structure well and the two threads are easy to keep track of while offering a good way to build up tension.
The rest of the book was less successful for me. This is mostly because I never really bought the situation I was meant to suspend my disbelief for. I could accept that the people who knew Bec would accept her reappearance – at least for a while – because the power of wanting such a thing must be fierce. But the way officialdom handled the event never rang true. For example the act Pretend Bec used to get out of providing DNA (which would have immediately proven her a liar) is completely implausible, as is the broader way police (represented by a lone detective) are portrayed as handling the reappearance. Snoekstra had already given herself a tougher than normal job of maintaining suspense by showing readers that Pretend Bec wasn’t the real missing girl; adding a laughably incompetent police and a strangely standoffish media presence just made it all the more difficult. Not to mention a complete lack of social media which for events taking place in 2014 just added to the lack of credibility for me.
The other element that didn’t really work for me were the characters. Real Bec was decently drawn and her teenage friendship with Lizzie has a genuine feel to it. But there are limits to my interest in the inner life of 16-year old girls. Especially ones interested in clothes, makeup, shoplifting and an older boy who turns out not to be prince charming. Yawn. Pretend Bec just annoyed me. Partially because I am not the world’s biggest fan of unreliable narrators but mostly because her inner life was even less interesting than Real Bec’s and I never got to the point where I cared much if she got found out or would meet the same fate as her doppelganger. The rest of the characters are pretty one-dimensional and I cannot possibly be the only reader who saw the end coming – including who’d done what – from a mile away. The red herrings – such as they were – felt way too forced and the culprit too obvious.
As always, other opinions are available and I can imagine that if you are not a nearly-50 grump then you might get more from this novel than I did.
This is book 16.5 that I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge (one book was written by a father daughter team so I’m only counting it as a half). For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.
Publisher: Harlequin Enterprises 
Length: 191 pages
Format: eBook (ePub)