Adel Minor dies alone, in her three-bedroom ranch house in a South Florida suburb. It’s the fire people notice first, a column of smoke rising amid the 1960s ranch houses of Seven Springs, but once it’s put out the firefighters find Adel, a widow in her 70s, on her living room floor, her head crushed with her own cast-iron kettle.
Murder is shocking in this neighborhood, although being alone is not. Lauren Doyle Owens’ impressive debut novel, The Other Side of Everything, is a compelling mystery, but it’s also an astute study of the profound disconnectedness with which so many Americans live.
Owens, who lives near Fort Lauderdale and graduated from Florida International University’s MFA creative writing program, builds the book’s plot around three of Adel’s neighbors.
Bernard White has known Adel longest; like her, he’s one of the neighborhood’s "originals," who moved there 50 years ago to raise their young families. The two haven’t liked each other for a long time, but nevertheless, when he saw that smoke, he tried to break into her house, called out to her as the fire trucks arrived.
Bernard’s wife, Irene, died years before; another woman he loved died even further back but haunts him still. Some people adapt to losing a spouse, like Bernard’s friend Danny. "?‘Think about it,’ Danny continued, a finger in the air, ‘our wives are gone, we can do whatever we want, with whomever we want. We can have whiskey sours for breakfast! We can look at Internet porn! In-ter-net porn!’?"
But Bernard is sunk in a depressed cycle of TV watching and heating up frozen burritos, hardly leaving his house.
Amy Unger’s stylishly rehabbed ranch house is right behind Adel’s, but she made no move to do anything when she saw the smoke. Her depression is epic. A promising artist when she moved to Seven Springs a few years before with her husband, Pete, she was broadsided at age 30 by cancer. Now she lives with "the thin smile of her hysterectomy scar and the zigzagging train tracks that ran across her chest, a result of the double mastectomy she’d had two years before." She hasn’t painted in three years, and her marriage is fractured, perhaps over.
Maddie Lowe is a 15-year-old who waits tables at the neighborhood barbecue joint. Her mother recently abandoned the family, simply not coming home from work one day. Maddie’s father works nights and leaves her with most of the responsibility for her younger brother; she finds comfort in her job and in secretly cutting herself.
To her, Adel’s death seems unreal, another diversion, as she waits on investigators at the restaurant: "Last night it was cops, fat in their blue uniforms; tonight it was men in dress shirts and sport coats that didn’t quite hide their shoulder holsters. Detectives, Maddie assumed. They were the next step in a process she didn’t understand but would nonetheless watch, characters in a television drama that had come to her door."
Then there is another murder, and later a third. For Bernard, fear brings an uneasy reunion with the other originals, leading to a plan to pair the single people so no one is living alone — an arrangement that will turn his world upside down.
Amy finds she can’t stop thinking about Adel’s murder, and then she begins to sketch it obsessively. "The images scared and overwhelmed her. Once they started coming they would not stop, so she took out her sketchpad and drew frame after frame. ... She sketched Adel over and over, her face changing as she moved from shock to fear to horror." Suddenly, Amy finds herself painting again.
As the murders become more real to Maddie, she reacts with risky behavior. Is the young man who keeps asking her out after work courting her, or could he be the killer? What about the neighbor — a neighbor she doesn’t know, of course — she notices watching through her bedroom window at night? And who ransacked her bedroom but didn’t steal a thing?
Owens keeps the sense of dread growing throughout The Other Side of Everything, while believably showing us the bonds her lonely characters begin to forge in the face of violence — bonds that might just save them.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.