If We Had Known by Elise Juska
Published by Grand Central Publishing
Released April 17, 2018
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If We Had Known by Elise Juska is a book surrounding a mass shooting in a mall in a small college town in Maine. We primarily follow Maggie, a writing professor at that college, who taught the would-be shooter four years previously. Along the way, we also watch her daughter, Anna, struggle with the reappearance of her eating disorder; Maggie’s relationship crumbles; a boy who was in that same writing class with the killer becomes Facebook famous.
With a startling increase in the number of mass shootings in America, novels such as this one are inevitable to help people cope with what these murderers are thinking, and we’re always left wondering if someone could have made a difference in the person’s life or have noticed something was wrong before tragedy struck.
My favorite part of the novel was Juska’s writing style. The prose was both beautiful and simple at the same time. I’d never read a book by Elise Juska before and was pleasantly surprised by her style.
Overall, though, the book left me bored and frustrated. I found myself frequently baffled by Maggie’s decision making, from lying about finding the shooter’s essay to confronting the killer’s mother to not seeing the huge red flags about her romantic partner.
As I mentioned earlier, there are multiple perspectives in this novel, and none of these characters actually knew Nathan Dugan, the man who did the shooting in the mall. The book would have been far more interesting if they had. Maggie only taught him in a single freshman composition class several years previously, and by her own admission didn’t pay him much attention. Maggie’s daughter Anna didn’t know him at all. Luke, a student who attended Maggie’s same class with Nathan, only talked to him a single time. The novel was more of a character study of how these three characters deal with their own anxieties than a book about trying to figure out why Nathan took a duffle bag full of guns to the local mall.
The book also feels very convoluted and is lacking any kind of solid theme. It feels like we’re supposed to have sympathy for all of these characters, but I certainly didn’t. Not even for Anna, who suffers from anxiety issues, which is usually something I can identify with.
Everything just fell flat for me, and during the latter half of the book, I was already day-dreaming about what books I wanted to read next, which is certainly never a good sign.
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