Review: He's Gone by Deb Caletti

Review: He's Gone by Deb Caletti

The clanging sailboats and the wind in the trees and the groaning dock and that wide, wide night sky say only one thing back. He’s gone, they say. He’s gone, the darkness and the empty street say, too.

I've read and enjoyed several novels for teens written by Deb Caletti, most memorably The Nature of Jade and The Story of Us (invest in some Kleenex before reading that one). What consistently struck me most about Caletti's novels is that she develops backstory with a slow-burn reveal. It's subtle and effective.

When I learned last year that she was publishing an adult novel, He's Gone, it quickly became one of my much-anticipated 2013 reads, as I was certain Caletti's style which I knew from her young adult fiction would likely translate well to a novel dealing with adult issues.

He's Gone did not disappoint in terms of twisty backstory, and while it definitely heads in a darker direction than fans of Caletti's YA novels may be accustomed to, this unusual journey into the secrets of a marriage is both fascinating and mysterious.

Memory is such a sadistic, temperamental little beast.

He's Gone unfolds from the first-person perspective of Dani Keller, who wakes up after a night out at a party with her husband, Ian, only to find that he's disappeared. Dani doesn't know what happened, as she unwisely combined painkillers and booze in order to cope with the stress of attending a party at Ian's company.

The novel focuses on the aftermath of Ian's disappearance and Dani's struggle to figure where he went and why he disappeared. Did he leave? Was he having an affair? Is Dani responsible? Was their marriage in jeopardy? Was nothing of Dani and Ian's life together as it seemed?

There is that dream, and that memory, and those damn pills. A black hole of forgetting and remembering. Is there a secret self I am not willing to see? If it was me, if I have done something … Please, let it not be so. I need to stop this mad, pointless unraveling, this panicked fluttering. I am making fools of the good people around me. 

Entwined with the perplexing and distressing disappearance are flashbacks of how Dani met and married her husband (both were married to other people at the time), as Dani examines the nature of their relationship.

He's Gone is an odd story--and I really liked it. 

The more I think about it, the more I recommend this unusual story. I imagine a lot of the complaints about this novel will be that there's a lot of "telling," that there's little action. I found the approach rather refreshing, as He's Gone is the rare "character study" novel that I really enjoyed, that kept me guessing about the narrator as I got to know more about Dani and her life and past.  This is definitely thanks to the rather rapidly shifting flashback/present narrative structure, which it helped keep me guessing about Ian's fate right until the end of He's Gone, as did Dani's introspective nature.

The hugeness of alone, the panic of it, gathers up my insides and squeezes. After all I’d done to avoid it, maybe it had come to find me anyway. Oh, the cruelty of it. But this is how it goes, isn’t it, with the Big Life Lessons? You can run but you can’t hide?

In a novel like this, where there's not a lot of action, it's the little things that make a difference. In the case of He's Gone, two things stood out for me: the exploration of familial relationships and the surprisingly rich Seattle setting. The two secondary characters looming the largest in Dani's story are her mother and adult daughter. What struck me as distinctive is that this crisis--Ian's disappearance--didn't (thankfully) trigger some sort of dramatic change in these women's relationships, instead, their existing dynamic is heightened. 

Abby snorts out her nose now. This has been going on for too long, hours, and now they’re sliding into fatigued hilarity, where an exhale from a cushion could become fart-like high comedy. “Just try some random word,” Abby suggests.
I rub my temples.
“Like boner,” my mother says. They both crack up.
“We’re done here,” I say. This isn’t exactly funny. This is beyond inappropriate.
“You can’t give up,” Abby says. “Maybe it’s a combination of words.”
“Like priest boner.” Mom’s shoulders are going up and down in suppressed hysterics.
“Clown boner,” Abby says. They both bust up.
My mother’s eyes are watering, she’s laughing so hard.
“God,” she says. “Try that one,” Abby says. More hysterical laughing.
“Fine. We’re done. Jesus, people.”

Like her mother and daughter, the backdrop of the city of Seattle plays an important role in helping the reader to understand Dani's life. In quintessential Seattle fashion, Dani and Ian live on a houseboat, have quirky neighbors and live the type of lives you'd expect of a successful Pacific Northwest couple. The "realness" of the setting, like the relationships between the three generations of Dani's family, keeps He's Gone from ever lagging the way many psychologically-driven stories do.

Outside, it is a palette of grays again. Here, you get to thinking that summer will never come. Living in Seattle is like living with a depressed person, one who might all at once cheer, one who might suddenly rage.

Finally, I have to point out that Deb Caletti is my favorite when it comes to including pets--particularly dogs--not as plot devices, but as characters themselves.

I'm at the point where if a pet appears in the novel, I'll skip ahead to see if the author kills off the pet in order to create a Big Emotional Moment, so I know not to bother continuing to read, but I completely trust Caletti to do right by the animals in her novels. (I wrote a bit more about this in my tiny review of The Story of Us on Goodreads.)

He's Gone features Pollux, Dani's elderly dog who's been her constant for many years. The development of Dani and Pollux' relationship was as import to understanding her as the exploration of her love of books and solitude and her relationships with her mother and daughter, and for a markedly introverted character, that's significant, but not something often seen in books.

“Oh, no, Poll. Pollux, boy. He didn’t let you out?” My Pollux, my sweet black mutt, he’s getting old. He has to be taken outside the minute you wake up, poor guy. I wipe up the puddle. The thrill of unexpected alone time gives way to irritation. It’s him I’m irritated with. Ian. Overlooking my, our, sweet old dog, who now looks ashamed. 

The overarching theme of He's Gone is an exploration of the importance of self-determination, that no one can truly save another person. 

I didn’t know then what I know now: Emotional rescue is, at the heart of it, a lack of respect. If you’re the one being rescued, it’s a lack of self-respect. If you’re the one rescuing—lack of respect for the other person. You’re demonstrating your belief in your own weakness or in theirs. It’s insulting.

This is a tough subject, and one that many novels dance around, but this one confronts heads-on, and doesn't shy away from the reality that's that's far easier said than done, in many instances.  

After a long dry spell with straight contemporary fiction, I'm so thrilled that I've recommended two in the last week (the other being Nowhere But Home by Liza Palmer). As I mentioned, the more I think about this novel, the more I think it's pretty excellent and quite different from a lot of the novels on the market at the moment. This sort of slowly-unfurling, character-focused story that I want to read more of, and as much as I've enjoyed Caletti's novels for teens, I'd love to read another adult novel from this author exploring difficult, yet relatable questions about the nature of life and love.

FNL Character Rating: Lyla Garrity

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Disclosure: Review copy provided by the publisher.

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