In a Pennsylvania town called Serenity, 16-year-old E. C. Tobbit is not having a good year. His father has died of cancer, his girlfriend has dumped him, and his mother has started dating his shrink. In fact, the only good thing to develop recently -- and to come out of his therapy with Dr. Darwin C. Duke (whom E. C. privately calls The Duck) -- is his friendship with Neal Kraft, whom E. C. met during a group therapy session. Neal's father committed suicide, and together, E. C. and Neal bond over their recent losses and a shared reverence for Stephen King novels. But E. C. and Neal's friendship takes a new turn when they meet an unusual girl named Julie Slaymaster. After knowing Julie, E. C.'s life will never be the same.
"Aunt says no matter what you see for yourself in the future, you'll always be way off the mark," Julie tells E. C. -- an ironic comment, considering E. C. is named after a psychic. Julie's aunt and adoptive guardian, Rosalind Slaymaster, is the town's eccentric billionaire widow; a former Serenity outcast who recently returned to lord it over the place and people who once treated her like dirt. One night, the imposing Mrs. Slaymaster invites E. C. and his mother, Ann, an astrologer, to dinner at her mansion, which has come to be called Peligro. Why this powerful woman has summoned E. C. and his mother to her home is anyone's guess -- E. C. is just along for the ride. Julie is also present at the strange gathering, as is Peale -- a large leather doll, dressed as intricately and lovingly as if he were a real person. Apparently, to Rosalind Slaymaster, Peale is much more than a doll -- he is a talisman. She is certain that Peale can grant wishes and makes dreams come true. "I'm never without him," she tells her dinner guests. "He goes wherever I go. He even has his own passport." She asks E. C.'s mother to do Peale's astrological chart -- a bizarre, almost unfathomable request, yet Ann Tobbit cannot refuse Rosalind Slaymaster. Few people can. To sweeten the deal, Mrs. Slaymaster invites E. C., his mother, and a guest of E. C's choice, to her annual Christmas Eve party at the mansion. E. C. decides to invite Neal.
After the dinner at Peligro, E. C. takes more notice of Julie Slaymaster. He feels bad that she's not treated well at school, but then, most new kids aren't. Rosalind Slaymaster's Christmas Eve bash is extravagant, almost overwhelming. In the hands of M. E. Kerr, the party comes vividly to life. You can hear the music, taste the food, and share E. C.'s carefully hidden awe at his opulent surroundings. He enjoys hanging out with Julie, and when Mrs. Slaymaster asks him to keep an eye out for her niece while she is away for New Year's, he agrees. Later, when Neal shows up, E. C. overhears one of the older guests telling Neal that his father would practically roll over in his grave if he saw Neal at the Slaymaster house. E. C. isn't sure what that's all about, but he is soon distracted when he witnesses Neal stealing an engraved silver lighter from one of the rooms. He recalls his mother's superstition about stealing: When you steal from someone, you steal the person's bad luck along with the object you are taking.
Soon Julie has a crush on Neal. Neal deals with his ambivalent feelings toward her by always inviting E. C. to tag along with them. He also uses E. C. as a shield between him and Mrs. Slaymaster: "She wouldn't like a Kraft taking her niece out, and I don't want to give her the satisfaction of telling me I can't." A pivotal juncture in the fate of the threesome's friendship comes on New Year's Eve. Taking advantage of Mrs. Slaymaster's absence, they spend the night at Peligro. E. C. documents their celebration with his camera, producing photos that will come back to haunt him. And he's not the only one taking pictures: Julie tells them that the surveillance cameras in the house are sometimes turned on and that the cameras had even caught someone stealing from the house during the Christmas party, but her Aunt hadn't been able to identify the thief.
Later that night, when everyone else is asleep, E. C. finds an old scrapbook and journal belonging to Mrs. Slaymaster. At this point, What Became of Her switches gears and temporarily becomes Rosalind Slaymaster's account of her tormented adolescence in Serenity. Although shifts in narrative so late in the story can sometimes disrupt a novel, the change works here. After pages of mystery surrounding the motives of Rosalind Slaymaster, the segue into her own story is seamless and immensely satisfying. When What Became of Her returns to E. C.'s story, it's hard not to yearn for more of the beleaguered but ultimately triumphant young Mrs. Slaymaster. As for E. C., the journal offers pieces to a puzzle he hadn't even known existed, including information about Mrs. Slaymaster's ties to Neal's father and why she has every reason to seek revenge on Serenity.
Although E. C. has gained insight into Mrs. Slaymaster, he is still susceptible to her wrath. It's not long before Mrs. Slaymaster discovers that Julie has been hanging out with Neal Kraft, and she blames E. C. for bringing the son of her nemesis into Julie's life and for the transgressions that have taken place under her roof. When she threatens to take Julie away from Serenity for good, E. C. is devastated at the prospect of losing his friend. His only hope is an impulsive, drastic plan to keep Mrs. Slaymaster from leaving Serenity -- a plan that has more serious consequences than E. C. could have ever imagined.
As readers of Kerr's 1998 writing guide Blood on the Forehead know, her novels are often based on real-life people and events, and What Became of Her is no exception, inspired by unforgettable true characters. The result is an intricate, compelling look at the limitations family can place on our early lives and how fate often propels us in unimagined directions.