By the time Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever fell into my hands (an ebook that was available from my library during a gap in my reading frenzy), I had forgotten what it was about and why, exactly, it had landed in the little black book that I use for my To Read list. I dove in blind. Sort of. As it turns out, The Bright Forever is about a nine-year-old girl who disappears while bicycling some books back to her small midwest town library on a quiet summer night like any other.
I thought, Oh. It’s one of those books. One of those If you liked The Lovely Bones, you’ll LOVE blah, blah, blah. Except I’ve found that ever since Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones delighted me with its surreal plot and its strong left-behind sister you couldn’t help but root for, I haven’t quite found anything that lived up to its standards. Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way was a bit too much like Lovely Bones – it had that surreal 70s faded polaroid-feel to it, but even with the difference of remembering the protag through the eyes of her friends and classmates, it didn’t feel different enough. So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman was a bit different in that it had a bit of In the Woods (Tana French) mixed in, but it wasn’t gripping enough. Or maybe the sympathy and strength of writing was missing? Deep End of the Ocean by Jacqueline Mitchard was vaguely similar, only it was a little boy who went missing and the whole second half of that novel spun off in a different direction. It was good – though a little long and my attention wandered.
Which brings us back to The Bright Forever. Maybe I liked it as much as I did because I’d been disillusioned so many times that my expectations were pretty low. I still wouldn’t say it was Lovely Bones caliber, but it was pretty damn readable. I enjoyed that the novel focused more on the suspects, and how cleverly and sneakily Martin is able to convince you that even if you find the suspects and their significant others to be slimy, shady, pitiful creatures, by golly they’re human. Martin focuses on how the seemingly smallest choices can cast grand events in motion, and how something can be and not be your fault all at the same time. Life is complicated. Fault is complicated. The best villains and minorly-villainous characters are complicated. I enjoyed understanding the antagonists even as I rooted for their demise. There were places in the book where I wanted to shake certain characters and ask WHAT THE MAN?! and actively pleaded to – I don’t know, the god of book plots? – for things to work out differently. If that isn’t the definition of a compelling book, I don’t know what is.
All the same, it’s not a book I would read again. It’s not a book I would say I really enjoyed for the characters and the plot and just the general, all-over storyness of it. I liked dissecting it and looking at the differences of how it was constructed and trying to get into the how and why of the behind-the-scenes. If you like that, or hey if you liked The Lovely Bones and you’re not nearly as picky as me, maybe give it a whirl. It’s certainly good enough for me to recommend. But I’d borrow, rather than buy. 3 1/2 of 5 stars.