Despite the blurbs on the back cover, Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, is not a thriller in the traditional sense. The elements are all here: a kidnapping, a possible murder, a family in turmoil. But to Johnston’s credit, his novel is partly about thwarting expectations—mostly the reader’s, and not always in ways that we’re accustomed to.
The story begins in noir mode with the happenstance discovery of a floating body in Corpus Christi, Texas, and its possible connection to a long-forgotten kidnapping. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Johnston is not interested in basking in the lurid details. We don’t learn much about the abduction of Justin Campbell but we do get very close to the effects that his disappearance has had on his only brother, Griffin, and his parents, Eric and Laura, in the four years he has been gone. This is the story of how the Campbells learned to cope with the Justin’s absence and how their lives are put into stark relief by his subsequent reemergence.
Let there be no doubt: there’s a lot of anger, confusion, and potential violence boiling just beneath the surface of these characters. The story seems to head toward an inevitably violent conclusion. Suffice it to say these characters are only as predictable as real people are in situations as heartrending as this. We see how fragile Eric and Laura’s marriage has become, how so very close both characters are to their own breaking points. We see how Griffin struggles with relating to an older brother he took for dead while simultaneously navigating his relationship with his first girlfriend. How Justin himself deals with everyone around him is perhaps the most surprising part of this story.
If there’s anything to criticize here, it’s that Johnston’s reluctance to delve into the more disturbing parts of what happened to Justin during his abduction leaves a gaping hole in our understanding of him as a character. Ultimately though, those looking for an edge-of-your-seat thriller with all the expected ingredients best look elsewhere. Readers more willing to let this story play out with patience will be rewarded with an uncommonly tender and realistic depiction of a family hanging by an emotional thread. Fans of Emma Donohue’s Room will find much to like in Remember Me Like This. I can also see this becoming a book club favorite as well.