Remember Me Like Thisby Bret Anthony Johnston
The New York Times Book Review • Esquire • BookPage
A gripping novel with the pace of a thriller but the nuanced characterization and deep empathy of some of the literary canon’s most beloved novels, Remember Me Like This introduces Bret Anthony Johnston as one of the most/i>/b>/i>/b>
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
The New York Times Book Review • Esquire • BookPage
A gripping novel with the pace of a thriller but the nuanced characterization and deep empathy of some of the literary canon’s most beloved novels, Remember Me Like This introduces Bret Anthony Johnston as one of the most gifted storytellers writing today. With his sophisticated and emotionally taut plot and his shimmering prose, Johnston reveals that only in caring for one another can we save ourselves.
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Four years have passed since Justin Campbell’s disappearance, a tragedy that rocked the small town of Southport, Texas. Did he run away? Was he kidnapped? Did he drown in the bay? As the Campbells search for answers, they struggle to hold what’s left of their family together.
Then, one afternoon, the impossible happens. The police call to report that Justin has been found only miles away, in the neighboring town, and, most important, he appears to be fine. Though the reunion is a miracle, Justin’s homecoming exposes the deep rifts that have diminished his family, the wounds they all carry that may never fully heal. Trying to return to normal, his parents do their best to ease Justin back into his old life. But as thick summer heat takes hold, violent storms churn in the Gulf and in the Campbells’ hearts. When a reversal of fortune lays bare the family’s greatest fears—and offers perhaps the only hope for recovery—each of them must fight to keep the ties that bind them from permanently tearing apart.
Praise for Remember Me Like This
“Enthralling . . . [an] exquisitely moral mystery of how we struggle to accept and love the people we call family.”—The New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)
“I love this novel.”—John Irving
“An achingly beautiful and psychologically insightful portrait of a family . . . [a] fully immersive novel in which the language is luminous and the delivery almost flawless.”—The Boston Globe
“Riveting . . . [The novel] flows like it was plotted by Dennis Lehane but feels like it was written by Jonathan Franzen.”—Esquire
“Tremendously moving . . . There’s real humanity in Johnston’s writing, and it’s heartening to spend time with these folks as they relearn how to be a family.”—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“Deeply empathetic and masterfully constructed . . . a novel that has both the feel of a great epic and the focused intensity of standing on a highwire.”—Salon
In Johnston’s strong debut, it’s been four years since young son Justin disappeared, and during that time the Campbell family in southern Texas has been slowly crumbling under the strain of their grief. But when Justin, now a teenager, is miraculously returned and his abductor set to stand trial for his crimes, the entire family must join together and help him recover the years he has lost. His mother, Laura, who volunteers at a local aquarium studying dolphins, confronts her own sense of guilt and tries to regain her former lust for life. Her husband, Eric, who has found comfort in the arms of another woman, struggles to speak to his son while he plots revenge on the abductor. And Justin’s younger brother, Griffin, is just trying to be a normal teen, more concerned with deciphering the signals of his tough-talking girlfriend, Fiona, than confronting psychic scars. As the police investigate the kidnapping and Justin’s captor is released before the trial, the tension rises. From the travails of sudden celebrity to the knowledge that the kidnapper is free nearby, the family is tormented. The novel offers a melodrama that tries to sympathetically portray the devastating effects of loss on a family, even (or especially) when the lost are found. Johnston has a talent for drawing well-rounded characters, although verbal excess weighs down the novel’s pace. In the end, this is a convincing and uplifting portrait of a family in crisis. (May)
“A convincing and uplifting portrait of a family in crisis.”—Publishers Weekly
“An admirable achievement . . . The story starts where other stories might end. . . . [Readers] will find their expectations continually defied as characters refuse to follow a formulaic plot trajectory. . . . This is ultimately an uplifting reading experience owing to the believable love and warmth of the family.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“A sensitive and frequently suspenseful portrait of a family struggling to heal in the aftermath of great trauma.”—Booklist
“It is as a writer that I admire the architecture of Remember Me Like This, the novel’s flawless storytelling. It is as the father of three sons that I vouch for the psychological authenticity of this depiction of any parent’s worst fears. Emotionally, I am with this family as they try to move ahead—embracing ‘the half-known and desperate history’ that they share. I love this novel.”—John Irving
“In this deeply nuanced portrait of an American family, Bret Anthony Johnston fearlessly explores the truth behind a mythic happy ending. In Remember Me Like This, Johnston presents an incisive dismantling of an all-too-comforting fallacy: that in being found we are no longer lost.”—Alice Sebold
“You could say that this book is ripped from the headlines, but that wouldn’t be fair. Bret Anthony Johnston’s riveting novel picks up where the tabloids leave off, and takes us places even the best journalism can’t go. Remember Me Like This is a wise, moving, and troubling novel about family and identity, and a clear-eyed inventory of loss and redemption.”—Tom Perrotta
“Both devastating and transporting, this is the rare novel a reader lives in, so persuasive is the impact, the insight, the heat of south Texas.”—Amy Hempel
“This mesmerizing story of loss and redemption on Texas’s Gulf Coast will take you in and hold you and not let go until it’s done with you, leaving you wiping at your eyes with the kind of soul-gratitude that comes only after experiencing true art.”—Andre Dubus III
“A brilliantly rendered portrait of a family in the aftermath of trauma . . . Beautifully crafted and so suspenseful you cannot look away, this is a novel as much about what is hidden as what is revealed; the balancing act is nothing short of masterly.”—Jill McCorkle
Lost and found: Years after he disappeared, a child is restored to his family in this appealing debut. Justin Campbell leaves home with his skateboard and vanishes into thin air. His family (parents Eric and Laura, grandfather Cecil, kid brother Griff) posts fliers of the 11-year-old in their hometown, Southport, and in the South Texas port city of Corpus Christi, an hour away. That was four years ago. The unresolved mystery has strained the cohesiveness of the Campbells. Eric, a history teacher, has begun an affair with a surgeon's wife. Laura has devoted herself to the care of a sick dolphin at an animal rescue lab, while Griff has immersed himself in skateboarding. Deliverance comes when a vendor at a Corpus flea market realizes Justin is her customer. There is boundless joy as the family reunites, for Justin, though eerily calm, is seemingly unharmed. He's been the captive of a man, Dwight Buford, in a Corpus neighborhood, with some license to roam. But of course Justin has been harmed, psychologically (sessions with a social worker ensue) and physically. Johnston doesn't specify the abuse; what interests him is that delicate organism, the nuclear family. The care with which he delineates the "abiding decency" of the Campbells is admirable. What Johnston overdoes is the need of these sweet people to chastise themselves; they're great parents, and Eric was only a halfhearted adulterer. Their interior monologues slow the momentum, and it takes a bombshell (the news that Buford is out on bail) to shake things up. The family threatens to unravel. Eric spends hours watching the Buford home; Laura withdraws into herself; and Griff's relationship with his first girlfriend is at risk. A crisis erupts that is more manufactured than inevitable, shots are fired, and a body is pulled from the water (as foreshadowed in the prologue). Johnston struggles to balance the family regrouping with the external threat, but his fine detail work augurs a bright future.
Four years after being kidnapped, the Campbell's teenage son Justin is found alive and returned to them. The reunification of the family is only the beginning of their healing, as parents Eric and Laura and younger brother Griffin must not only reorder their lives and examine the ways in which their layers of grief and guilt pulled their family apart but also come to terms with the horrors Justin faced during his captivity. The story starts where other stories might end, bringing readers intimately into the Campbell family dynamics and giving incisive detail about how each member heals and works toward rebuilding bonds and traditions. This debut novel from Johnston, who has a previous multiple award-winning short story collection (Corpus Christi) under his belt, is an admirable achievement. Readers conditioned by police procedurals will find their expectations continually defied as characters refuse to follow a formulaic plot trajectory. VERDICT Despite the dark subject matter, this is ultimately an uplifting reading experience owing to the believable love and warmth of the family, with all their flaws and weaknesses. [See Prepub Alert, 11/22/13.]—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis
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Read an Excerpt
Months earlier, the June heat on Mustang Island was gauzy and glomming. The sky hung close, pale as caliche, and the small played-out waves were dragging in the briny, pungent scent of seaweed. On the beach, people tried holding out for a breeze from the Gulf, but when the gusts blew ashore, they were humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps. By midday, everyone surrendered. Fishermen cut bait, surfers packed in their boards. Even the notoriously dogged sunbathers shook out their long towels and draped them over the seats in their cars, the leather and vinyl scalding. Lines for the ferry stretched for half an hour, though it could seem days before the dashboard vents were pushing in cool air. Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening.
After the short pass across the Laguna Madre, the ferry docked on the north jetty and drivers moved onto the mainland through the small, flat town of Southport, Texas. They passed an anchor-shaped monument embossed with the words welcome aboard, then the tackle shops and bait stands and the old rust-pocked pickups where men sold shrimp from ice chests. To the west, behind the leaning palm trees with their husks as dry and brown as parchment, the soapy bay fanned into the horizon. There was the public boat ramp and marina and the half-razed Teepee Motel, now nothing more than a cluster of concrete teepees hemming a drained kidney-shaped pool. A faded vinyl banner for the upcoming Shrimporee sagged over the diagonal parking places on Main Street, then popped and opened up in the wind; the Shrimporee was in September. On the asphalt, puddles of heat appeared, shimmered, evaporated. The seafood restaurants and a spate of garishly painted souvenir shops lined Station Street, then just before the town yielded to the blacktop highway came the Whataburger and H-E-B grocery and Loan Star Pawnshop, whose rusted arrow marquee sign announced, we buy window units! The pawnshop’s crushed-shell parking lot was crowded this time of year—shrimpers hocking tools between good hauls, surfers hunting for wet suits, men from the Coast Guard quibbling over fishing rods. Today, the last Wednesday of the month, a man was trying to sell one of the pawnbrokers an old Cadillac, a cream-colored Fleetwood Brougham. The hood was raised and the ragtop was lowered, and the men stood in the pale sun—squinting, haggling, appearing stranded to everyone who passed.
Across town, in the Villa Del Sol condominium complex, Eric Campbell stood under a cool shower, listening. He thought he’d heard his phone buzzing, but either it had stopped or he’d been mistaken. He’d left the phone next to his watch and wedding band on the nightstand. He opened the shower curtain, leaned out, waited. The only sounds were the water pulsing through the showerhead and the air-conditioning unit whirring outside, so he drew the curtain and rinsed off. The afternoon sun slanted in through the bathroom’s skylight. He wondered if they’d break a hundred degrees today, if they hadn’t already. He was glad to have parked his truck in the garage.
The condo belonged to Kent Robichaud. He was a surgeon, and although he and his wife, Tracy, lived on Ocean Drive in Corpus, they’d bought the condo in Southport to be closer to the marina on weekends. They were in their late thirties, originally from the Midwest; they owned a twenty-footer named Thistle Dew. Eric liked Kent. He tried not to think about him when he spent afternoons with Tracy. With summer school in session, they’d gotten into the routine of him coming over after his Wednesday class. Tracy would drive in from Corpus and read the weekly Southport Sun in her breakfast nook until Eric’s truck appeared on the street. Then she’d click open the garage door and make her way to the bedroom, undressing.
Eric always checked messages before stepping out of his truck. Usually there weren’t any. At home, Griffin would still be sleeping, or he’d be playing videogames and waiting for the afternoon to cool off enough to go skateboarding. If Griff wanted to leave the house, he had to call his mother or father for permission; when Eric had thought he heard his phone in the shower, he assumed it was his son. His younger son. Griff had just turned fourteen. Of course, Eric worried it was his wife calling, but he also knew better. Laura rarely dialed his number anymore. Wednesdays were her early shift at the dry cleaner’s, but she had, for the last few months, been driving to Marine Lab in Corpus after work. She volunteered a few times a week, stayed out there until dinner. Later, sometimes. When she came home, she was dog-tired and smelled of frozen herring. She wore an expression, so transparent to Eric (and, he feared, to Griff), of practiced contentment. She would update them on Marine Lab—currently, they were rehabbing a bottlenose dolphin that had beached on the National Seashore—then listen to Griff and Eric talk about their days; Griff usually told them about his skateboarding, and Eric spoke of his seventh graders or other faculty members. If there was nothing to report, he’d invent a sweet or comic story to buoy their spirits. On Wednesdays, he always steeled himself for the question of what he’d done after class, but Laura never asked. It was just another thing they didn’t discuss. Eventually she would excuse herself from the table, kiss Griff on his head, then retire to the bedroom. More often than not, the sun was still in the sky, syrupy and molten, coppering the early-evening surfaces.
When Eric shut off the shower, there was only the steady hum of the air conditioner. Tracy might still be lying across the bed, her eyes closed and her dark hair wild on the pillows, or she might have already stripped the sheets and taken them to the washer. He dried himself with a thick towel, stepped too carefully from the tub. For years, he’d had an unfounded fear of falling in the bathroom, of cracking his skull on porcelain. He’d known no one who’d suffered such a fall, and yet the risk felt familiar and menacing, as if he’d suddenly grown ancient and infirm in the shower. In Tracy’s bathroom, the vanity was marble-topped, sharp-edged and expensive. The whole condo brimmed with upgrades—Saltillo tile, a Viking range, one air-conditioning system for the first floor and another for the second. Every week, the lavishness sullied him; he wouldn’t let his gaze settle on anything. Now, pulling on his boots, he wished he’d already left.
Villa Del Sol had been built after Southport lost its bid for the naval station. Most of the sandstone condos were owned by people from Corpus or by snowbirds, silver-haired retirees who wintered on the coast and caned their way through the souvenir shops on Station Street. “It’s snowing,” Laura used to say when they’d get stuck behind an elderly driver. They lived in a three-bedroom ranch, a few blocks from the house where Eric had grown up where his father still lived. Their house was drafty, in need of a new roof, double-mortgaged to put up the reward money. Every couple of years he had to raise the foundation with bottle jacks.
But when Villa Del Sol first opened, Eric had driven Laura and the boys to an open house. Justin was nine, Griff was seven. Everyone wore church clothes.
“Who can afford one of these?” Laura said in the living room of the model unit. “No one we know.”
“We’re not that far off,” Eric said, trying to sound assured. “Besides, no charge for looking.”
The boys were in the courtyard, hunting rocks. Griff had recently started collecting them, because Justin did. Laura watched them through the bay window. She said, “Guess what Justin asked me last night.”
“If Rainbow could sleep inside?” he said. Rainbow was their black Lab, a dog Eric had bought from a man selling puppies out of his truck bed on Station Street. Rainbow was a good, affable dog, but she’d recently been relegated to the backyard after Eric woke to find her chewing one of his boots.
“Yes, but something else,” Laura said.
“About cusswords? The other day he asked me if there were any he could say without getting in trouble.”
“He asked me to marry him.”
“Oh,” Eric said. “Smart boy.”
“You don’t think it’s weird?”
“He’s got good taste in women, is what I think.”
Laura paced across the room with her hands clasped in front of her. She looked like a woman in a museum, taking care not to bump into exhibits. Were she a stranger, Eric would’ve been struck with longing as he watched her languid movements. His wife—it still shocked him—was beautiful. She returned to the window to watch the boys.
“What are we doing here, honey? We’re not—”
“I thought it’d be fun,” he said. He crouched in front of the fireplace, trying to figure if it worked. Just for show, he thought.
“I don’t want to live anywhere else. Neither do the boys. We love our house.”
“It was just something to do.”
“Sometimes I worry you feel like you need to give us more.”
He couldn’t remember not feeling that way. Though he hadn’t yet told Laura, he’d just agreed to teach summer school. His plan was to surprise everyone with a vacation over Christmas break. The boys had never left Texas.
“We have everything we need,” she said. Outside, Griff was trying to show Justin a piece of limestone he’d found.
“What did you tell him?” Eric asked, pushing himself up from the fireplace.
She smiled as if he’d paid her a compliment. Her eyes stayed on their sons. “I said I loved him very much, but I was already married.”
“He must’ve been heartbroken.”
“Crushed,” she said. “Utterly crushed. But then I helped him sneak Rainbow into his room and he seemed to recover.”
When Eric stepped from the bathroom, Tracy was standing with her back to him. She peered through her bedroom blinds, watching the two sisters who owned the condo across the courtyard. The women were in their eighties, stooped and wire-haired. Tracy loved spying on them. She’d wrapped herself in a sheet that puddled around her ankles and exposed her back. The knuckles of her spine looked like shells in sand. Laura’s body, he thought, might resemble Tracy’s now; she’d lost weight over the last four years. Twenty pounds, maybe more. And ever since Justin had gone missing, she’d let her hair grow out, a protest of sorts, or a show of solidarity. She’d stopped shaving her legs and under her arms, too. Eric couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his wife naked.
“I think the sisters’ air conditioner’s busted,” Tracy said. “They’re just sitting at the kitchen table, fanning themselves.”
He was tempted to say he’d walk over and take a look, but checked himself. He didn’t want to run into the sisters later. For old girls, they got around just fine. They drove a Lincoln Continental. Eric said, “After I leave, tell them to have someone check the Freon.”
Meet the Author
Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of the award-winning Corpus Christi: Stories, which was named a best book of the year by The Independent (London) and The Irish Times, and the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, The Paris Review, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship and a 5 Under 35 honor from the National Book Foundation. He teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars and at Harvard University, where he is the director of creative writing.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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It is vivid and real and flows like poetry. The story is incredibly realistic and the characters become alive and sit right next to you. Brilliant, heart wrenching, and happy.
This is probably the heaviest novel I have read for a long time. It is a deep analysis into what the kidnap of a child does to every member of a family and when that child is found and home again. How nothing can be the same, how they struggle to cope with how to be normal, how to continue. There is no fast action, no end goal in sight for the family, because nothing can ever be the same again. How does this change someone, change a family. What small intimacies between parents and children become uncertainties of acceptance and truth. The brutal reality of how families fall apart in a sea of sudden uncertainty of parenthood. How each person deals with the trauma in their own way. How it impacts on their relationships both inside and outside of the family, and then again when Justin is home again after 5 years, how they have no idea how to begin again, and have to learn how to be a family all over again, but with the knowledge of what has happened to Justin. I struggled reading this book because it is so heavy I could feel it dragging me down with it. However, that is the mark of how a good writer can make you feel a story and not just read it. What makes it different? It is written so beautifully and insightful. It is not a story of the kidnap and search, but of what how it impacts on personal lives day after day. When doors close it offers a reminder of how families live with the trauma of a missing child. After that child is brought home, this is an account of the trauma starting over again in a way that is heartbreaking. There is a tenderness that will touch every parent who reads it. What did I like best? I love the descriptions that convey the pain of coping in their world, which feels so real you are afraid it has to be true. Eric, Justin’s father describes his pain: “How often in the last four years had he almost knocked? [Justin’s bedroom door] Then, when his thoughts fitted themselves to reality, he felt cored out and drugged, groping awkwardly through his days as if he’d lost a limb in an accident, an arm or leg whose weight he still anticipated. He recognised its absence, and yet he could still feel the arteries as they dilated, the nerves as they burned. Johnston describes how each member of the family cope in their own way beautifully, so that you have a real sense of how they move through their days in their own way. Laura throws herself into an anonymity of volunteering at a Dolphin research place, Griff his brother disappears into his own anonymity of being the brother left behind, and Eric his father has an affair. But each feels responsible for Justin’s disappearance. What was not so good for me? Because of the ‘heaviness’ of the writing, I almost lost the will to live and nearly gave up reading! It has a feeling of being one long pain driven account of despair when a child is kidnapped, which is most likely true, but to read it in a novel can be very depressing. BUT It is stunningly accurate in its emotional account of how a family falls apart coping when a child is kidnapped and found five years later. I had to keep reading to find what the conclusion was. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Many thanks to the publisher for a copy for my honest review
Although this book is about a child's abduction and return home after 4 years, it's not about that. Justin and whatever happened to him, is the elephant in the room. The family, who are just average people, was told not to ask him any questions about his years in captivity, so, they don't. He volunteers little. They don't even allow themselves to speculate either with private thoughts or whispered questions to each other. They don't even encourage him to talk. They rebuild their lives around the unknown 4 years, filling the days with minute detail of trivia they observe, or think, or remember, regrouping and pulling themselves together, silently lying in his own guilt guilt guilt. This isn't a book about Justin. It's about his family. At the end we know few facts about his 4 years. He never tells anything except teeny trivial pieces......nothing about sexual abuse. Even though Justin comes home so changed for the better in so many ways you feel he is so damaged, hiding behind politeness, good moods and perfect behavior, that he may never be whole. That he has no anger or rage is deeply disturbing. I found myself craving ANY tidbit about Justin, wading through 10,000 words for a clue. At the end of the book I thought maybe what I got from Justin was exactly the same as his parents got. Maybe that was the intent of Mr. Johnston. Whatever, this is a book I will remember for a long time.
Agonizingly raw characters with beautiful flaws. Really good read!
The entire book kept me on my toes and was a surprise throughout.
This was a good book but after i finished there was so many imortant unanswered questiins
A beautifully written examination of the interior lives of a family struggling to adjust to the tremendous changes wrought not only by the disappearance of their young son, but also his return. One might think that finding Justin would erase the past and give them all a new lease on live, allowing the pain of his four year absence to simply be swallowed up in time, but of course nothing is as it used to be, and they are all damaged and different than they were before his abduction. It's a sad book, but not one that leaves the reader in despair. It's more as if the author manages to balance hope and despair in such a way that while there seem to be miles to go before they are restored, there is a chance that they will find happiness--albeit in a very different form than once hoped for--if they continue moving forward. I very much appreciated the author resisting the urge to describe Justin's ordeal in a salacious manner (for salacious and unnecessary, see An Untamed State)--it is hinted at, and it is obvious, but overly focusing on it would have been damaging and distracting from what the book was really about, which is the emotional roller coaster that no one in the family can ever expect to exit.
While the author writes well, this is a very boring, draggy book. He's been gone from Texas way too long! It was a page-turner; I skipped lots of pages. Don't waste your money.
An emotionally intense read about a family struggling to deal with the abduction and subsequent return of one of their own.