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What if a teacher’s most promising pupil is also her most dangerous? A tautly plotted psychological thriller, as intelligent as it is mesmerizing
What Has Become of You follows Vera Lundy, an aspiring crime writer and master of self-deprecation who, like many adults, has survived adolescence but hasn’t entirely overcome it. When she agrees to fill in for a private school English teacher on maternity leave, teaching The Catcher in the Rye to privileged girls, Vera feels in over ...
What if a teacher’s most promising pupil is also her most dangerous? A tautly plotted psychological thriller, as intelligent as it is mesmerizing
What Has Become of You follows Vera Lundy, an aspiring crime writer and master of self-deprecation who, like many adults, has survived adolescence but hasn’t entirely overcome it. When she agrees to fill in for a private school English teacher on maternity leave, teaching The Catcher in the Rye to privileged girls, Vera feels in over her head. The students are on edge, too, due to the recent murder of a local girl close to their age.
Enter Jensen Willard. At fifteen she’s already a gifted writer but also self-destructive and eerily reminiscent of Vera’s younger self. As the two outcasts forge a tentative bond, a sense of menace enfolds their small New England town. When another student, new to the country, is imperiled by her beliefs, Vera finds herself in the vortex of danger—and suspicion.
With the threat of a killer at large, the disappearance of her increasingly worri-some pupil, and her own professional reputation at stake, Vera must thread her way among what is right by the law, by her students, and by herself. In this poignant page-turner, populated with beguiling characters and sharp social insights, coming-of-age can happen no matter how old you are.
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Jan Elizabeth Watson
Standing amid the library stacks, Vera Lundy thumbed through an anthology of contemporary essays, stopping at one of her favorites— “Goodbye to All That,” by Joan Didion—and read the first line, which she already knew by heart: “It is easy to see the beginning of things, and harder to see the ends.” A neat, pat sentence, Vera thought, but not entirely true. Sometimes beginnings are less clear-cut than endings; sometimes, when speaking of significant events, their points of origin are not so easy to locate. She wondered if she might be able to elaborate on this idea in a future lesson plan, putting it in a real-world context that her students could relate to. The recent arrest of a local man named Ritchie Ouelette for the killing of an eleven-year-old girl, for example—would this be considered a beginning or an ending? She supposed that would depend on whom you asked.
She was about to put the book back in its proper place when the librarian with the wobbly-wheeled book cart stopped her, saying: “Please don’t reshelve that. Return any unwanted items to the circulation desk.”
As though apprehended in the middle of a far more serious offense, Vera froze, holding the book at upper shelf level. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, taking stock of the librarian, whom she saw on at least a twice-weekly basis: crisp iron-gray hair; black horn-rimmed glasses; turtleneck under a shapeless denim jumper that seemed to be the unofficial, no-nonsense uniform of all New England librarians over a certain age. “I was putting it back in the right spot, if that makes it any better.”
The librarian’s expression grew frostier, and she reiterated “We ask that all unwanted items be returned to the circulation desk” with such grim finality that Vera felt chastened.
The librarian steered her rumbling cart in the other direction. Vera was sure the woman knew her by sight, knew her to be a respectful library patron—a regular, even, who returned her books well before their due dates—but she always regarded her with the same lack of recognition. Perhaps that was just her way. But Vera was sure that this librarian was dismissive of her because of her choice in reading materials. She was always requesting true-crime books from interlibrary loan—the more lurid in content, the better—though this all fell within the framework of research: Vera was writing a manuscript of her own, an account of a homicide dating back to her freshman year in high school.
The other possibility was that the librarian mistook her for a kid. Vera was petite and round-faced, with certain demure, girlish qualities and a bit of teenage insouciance thrown in to further muddy the picture. In reality, however, she was nearly forty years old—a fact she kept from everyone but her immediate family, who already knew the truth. It did no harm, she reasoned, to tell everyone else that she was thirty-five. Thirty-five seemed a good age to stick with for a while.
She pored over the new arrivals on the library shelf one last time, contemplating the possibility of adding a fifth book to her haul, but decided to restrict it to four this week: the copy of The Catcher in the Rye that had been the purpose of her trip, two true-crime books about cannibal killers, and an obscure but promising novel about a Victorian poisoner. Four was a good number, to her thinking. She’d once read that in some cultures the number four is regarded as unlucky— superstitiously avoided as the number thirteen is avoided in the Western world—but Vera’s superstitions were selective at best.
Stuffing the newly borrowed books into her tote bag, she stepped outside and was pleased to find the weather had improved since she’d first set out; the bank sign next door read 48 degrees, which would make for an unusually temperate walk home. In Vera’s mind, a world where the temperature constantly read 48 degrees would be all but perfect: just cool enough to necessitate a thick coat and a hat, but warm enough to keep her from shivering. The thick coat and hat were important, Vera thought, because they offered her a camouflage or subterfuge she didn’t have in the warmer days of spring and summer; she liked being covered up, and she liked knowing she could run errands with uncombed hair or the same dirty T-shirt she’d slept in without anyone being the wiser.
In such a state, Vera could almost blend in with certain denizens of her town, for Dorset, Maine, was a place where liberal-minded college kids coexisted with the toothless and the unwashed; the hip small businesses and chichi restaurants flourished on the same blocks as pawn shops and bodegas in such disrepair that the hipster kids didn’t dare wander into them. Self-satisfied middle-class people who owned or rented historic brownstones lived alongside those in housing projects. In truth, Vera felt she had little in common with any of Dorset’s residents, yet it was Dorset where she had made her home after a failed attempt to make peace with her hometown of Bond Brook.
Reaching her apartment building, she unlocked the door, climbed three flights, and let herself into her studio apartment. Vera thought of it as a bed-sit—one room, and a small one at that—yet the kitchenette, which she never used for cooking, offered enough room for her to fit a little computer table and her laptop. The shelves near the refrigerator, ostensibly installed for the purpose of holding dry goods or cookbooks, stored school-related files with her students’ papers in them, transforming the kitchenette into a serviceable study. As for the main area, most of its space was taken up by a full mattress. Vera’s mother had cajoled her to consider getting a futon—something she could roll up to look like a couch during the day so that she might entertain guests—but Vera had scoffed at this idea. She knew she would not be entertaining guests. She would rather have it be just herself, alone in her studio, sleeping on a comfortable mattress.
When Vera had moved to Dorset from Bond Brook two years earlier, she had in her possession only that mattress, some trash bags full of clothes, and a few boxes of books she had carefully picked out from the rest she left behind. She had tried not to feel discouraged by the fact that, at her age, she was starting over again: After this, everything will be easier, she told herself. Everything else I might need will come in its own time, just as things always do.
Vera unpacked her tote bag and set her library books on the floor next to her mattress and box spring. She pulled out the dining room chair that was pushed into her desk, sat down, and opened her laptop. Still in her coat and hat, she logged into her personal email account— nothing there except for some junk mail and spam—and then into her soon-to-be-defunct faculty email at Dorset Community College. There was not much in this in-box, either: a message telling faculty to let students know of half-price tickets to see the Sea Dogs play in Portland; a weekly email from the IT department called “Technology Tip,” which Vera never bothered to look at; a call for submissions to Writ Large, the student literary magazine. There was one email from an unknown sender, with no subject. Jensen Willard was the name in the message queue. Vera opened it and, by force of habit, read it quickly; Vera read everything quickly, as though text itself were something that might try to run away if she didn’t pin it down.
My name is Jensen Willard, as you probably have deduced. I guess you’re going to be substituting for Mrs. Belisle (this is for the tenth-grade English course, Autobiographical Writing: Personal Connections). I heard you taught at DCC, so I looked you up in the faculty directory there. Mrs. Belisle said we’re going to get started on The Catcher in the Rye once you get here. I have my own personal copy that I wanted to use—the one with the original cover, not the maroon “serial killer” version that got issued to everybody in class. My version has notes in it, but I will use the other copy if that’d be easier for class discussions. Thank you in advance for any insight. I look forward to meeting you.
Vera leaned more closely toward the computer monitor—she was painfully nearsighted, even with contact lenses—and reread the message more slowly. She suppressed a smile of bemusement. This Jensen Willard—a girl, no doubt, though the name had the trendy unisex character of so many young people’s names nowadays, like Taylor or Maddox or Jordan—showed a funny mixture of earnestness and reserve in this informal writing sample. Earnestness in that she had taken the initiative to locate her new substitute teacher and ask her about class preparation; reserve in some of her diction (“Thank you in advance for any insight”). Vera thought certain phrases even hinted at wit. Most striking of all, the email was written in complete sentences, which was more than she could say for some of her college students’ emails (“Ms Lundy i cant come 2 class 2day. im sick & puking” was a not-atypical email entry from a Dorset Community College freshman). She hit the reply button and started to type a response to Jensen Willard, then thought better of it. She would be seeing her in class tomorrow. Whatever she needed to know could wait until then.
Thank you in advance for any insight, Vera mouthed to herself, then thought, rather wildly: What insight? She did have what some people might call significant teaching experience: Prior to relocating to Dorset, she had taught as an adjunct at the University of Maine at Bond Brook, and even before that she had spent her early thirties earning a master’s degree at Princeton, where she’d been awarded a teaching fellowship after a rigorous screening and application process. This appointment surprised no one more than it had surprised Vera. She had not been outspoken in her graduate workshops and seminars. She did not like to call attention to herself in that self-aggrandizing, showy way that her peers did—most of whom were more moneyed, more successful, more youthful than she was. It was hard to imagine her commanding any student’s attention, but somehow, over time, she had learned to do it. And after a few devastating weeks of feeling as though she might bolt from the front of the classroom, Vera had come to appreciate certain aspects of teaching—had begun, finally, to think it might be the vocation she would stick with, or, as she joked to her few friends, “what I might like to be when I grow up, if being a police detective isn’t in the cards.”
Her most recent job—a six-week stint as a Dorset Community College instructor that had ended early when she quit to begin work at Wallace—had officially wrapped up the day before, two months before the spring semester ended, which she’d felt guilty about, though she knew her pupils were left in the hands of a good replacement. She had liked the range of students that she encountered, liked that the DCC student population included everyone from eighteen-year-olds fresh out of high school to sixty-year-olds looking to start new careers after retirement. More than anything, she’d been grateful to have a job.
But the adjunct teaching pay was not something she could continue to live off—not with her student loan creditors calling her night and day, wanting their due from her fellowship-free undergraduate days and leaving chilling computerized messages on her voicemail. These phone calls were too reminiscent of an earlier time—a time before answering machines, when the phone in her childhood home would ring and ring and Vera could do nothing but crouch in the corner with her hands clapped over her ears, knowing the threats and the vitriol that awaited her on the other end of the line.
When she saw the ad for the long-term substitute teaching position at the Wallace School, a private high school in Dorset’s affluent west end, she had tossed an application their way, thinking she hadn’t a chance in hell, even with her interesting credentials. She had nothing in the way of high school teaching experience. High school, she knew, was a different animal from college. But then Sue MacMasters, head of their English department, had contacted her. And even after Vera had bluffed and blundered her way through a series of interviews, Sue went ahead and granted her a position to start in February, covering someone’s maternity leave, with the hint of continuing in September when the new term started up.
Vera was fearful and a little skeptical of the Wallace School, for it was one of those well-to-do college preparatory schools—one of the few that was still all-female, not coed—that allowed students to design their own curriculum and offered English courses with titles that were varied and pointedly politically correct: The Literature of Genocide, The Working Woman in Fiction. The name of the course she would be teaching—Autobiographical Writing: Personal Connections—had been a great source of mirth among her colleagues at DCC when they heard about it. I’m going to think of it in the E. M. Forster “only connect” kind of way, Vera had said, and overlook that frightful personal part. Most of her students would be fifteen and sixteen years old, but precocious for their ages, she imagined. Driven little overachievers all.
Vera had many different thoughts about this—about these driven fifteen- and sixteen-year-old girls she had not met.
She herself had not enjoyed being that age. On the contrary, those had easily been the worst years of her life. They had been the years of being ostracized, of being heartbroken, of being hunted down.
Vera’s telephone, which she always kept on vibrate, buzzed from inside the handbag she’d slung over her chair. She winced, extracted the phone, and looked at the number of the incoming call: not the telltale 1-800 number of one of the bill collectors she was dodging, for once.
She opened the phone with relief. “Hi, Mom.”
Her mother’s thin voice came through the phone. She was smoking a cigarette; Vera could tell by the ragged way she breathed into receiver. “Hello, my loverly dotter,” she said—her customary salutation. “I was just thinking of you.”
“Aw, that’s nice, Mom. I was thinking of calling you earlier.”
“How are you feeling about tomorrow? Any better?”
“I feel out of my element,” Vera confessed. “We’re supposed to start reading The Catcher in the Rye. I had to get a copy from the library today; isn’t that stupid? Somehow I have to link the novel to the idea of personal connections. I suppose I could talk about how Holden relates to Salinger, or how Catcher captures the sort of voice one sees in strong autobiographical writing. I’m just glad they already read Macbeth so I don’t have to deal with that.” Vera was babbling. She pressed her tongue up against the roof of her mouth and held it there.
“I’m sure you’ll do fine, darling.”
“Well, I put my clothes out for tomorrow, all ready to go. So I can’t say I’m completely unprepared. And now I’ve got Catcher. What else could I need?”
“Just your own self,” her mother said comfortably. “I don’t want to take up all your phone minutes, but I do miss you. When are you going to have some time off to visit?”
Vera winced again. “I don’t know, Mom. I’ll have to sort out what my new schedule will be like.” Though her mother lived only an hour and a half away, Vera did not have a driver’s license—another source of embarrassment for her. It had all been very well and good to be without a driver’s license while living in New York City, but Maine was a different matter—not having a driver’s license was as much of an oddity and certainly as much of a handicap as having three heads. “Well, let me know when you can,” her mother said. “You could stay here in the guest room, and we could watch TV and get pizza. Big doings. By the way, are you remembering to eat?”
“Of course. I eat a lot. Mom, you don’t have to keep asking if I eat. That stuff was years ago.”
“Now that I don’t believe. But me, I am getting a gut. It’s the most obscene thing you ever . . . Oh! I knew I had some gossip for you, but I couldn’t remember what it was. Your brother Ben ran into Peter at Home Depot the other day. He was with a woman. Great big, tall blond gal with a pretty face. Peter introduced her as his fiancée, but Ben can’t think of her name.”
“Good for Peter,” Vera said sourly. “Really, I don’t care what he’s up to. I hope he does have a girlfriend or fiancée or whatever now. I hope he has a fiancée and is happy.”
Peter was Vera’s ex-fiancé. Their separation, which had been Vera’s idea, had precipitated her move to Dorset. For all the whining he had done about the split, all the difficulties he had created and the fear he’d attempted to instill in her—all the you’re the only one for mes, the I can’t live without yous, even the you won’t survive without mes—it certainly hadn’t taken him all that long to recover, she thought.
“Mom,” Vera said, “I’m glad you called. But I really do only have a few minutes left on my phone card. I’m sorry we can’t talk longer. I promise, if this school gig turns out to extend till fall and become something steadier, I’ll get a real phone again and can talk to you as much as you’d like.”
“I’d love that. You know, when I was visiting the other day with Edna and Marvita . . .”
For another ten minutes Vera listened to her mother go on about her friends from the neighborhood and how they got to see their daughters and sons at least once a week. It was hard to get her mother off the phone once she got started; Vera knew she was lonely, living in Bond Brook by herself since Vera’s father had died four years ago. She knew her two older brothers checked in from time to time, but as the only daughter, Vera knew that a certain responsibility fell to her. She also knew that she was shirking it. A son is a son till he takes a wife, but a daughter’s a daughter all of her life, her mother had always been fond of saying. The responsibility implied in that statement had never been lost on Vera.
When she was finally able to hang up the phone, she sank back down at her table. She looked at the cashmere sweater and the skirt she’d hung from the hook outside her closet door. A pair of black tights hung there, too—the shoes she planned to wear would conceal the holes in the toes—and a bra and underpants so that she could wake up first thing in the morning and hop into all her clothes with no forethought. The large wheeled suitcase that she used for transporting schoolbooks and papers was also there, handle pulled out as though just waiting to be noisily dragged around the streets of Dorset. Vera unzipped the bag and took out the three folders that were used for each of her three new classes. Each had one sheet of paper in it—an attendance roster meticulously printed out by Vera the day before. She looked again at the names of the students for her first class, which would meet at eight o’clock in the morning:
St. Aubrey, Cecily-Anne
Names. Just names. Vera knew from experience that a name tells one little about a person apart from the aesthetic preferences of the parents who named her. Still, she tried to imagine a face to go with each girl on her list. Knowing their names gave her much-needed power, standing before a roomful of strangers on her first day. She viewed it as a private embarrassment that such power was even necessary—that after nearly eight years of off-and-on teaching experience, she still had to summon her every last ounce of composure to not fall apart in front of her students, mortified by the eyes and attention on her, or, worse, the downcast eyes and the lack of attentiveness. She wished she didn’t feel so fraudulent sometimes. She wished she were one of those brazen teachers who was comfortable in her own skin and loved the performative aspect of being up in front of a classroom—always glad not only to teach a class but also to put on a show. Instead, she forced her way through lectures and discussions, all the while thinking: They see through me. They know what I am.
Posted July 9, 2014
For such an intelligent person Vera is quite stupid. And for such a talented writer Jensen sure sounded like any other 15 year old girl writing in her diary. I don't quite buy a lot of what these characters are supposed to be in this book, it just really isn't there for me. Also, for a thriller and a page turner it doesn't actually (somewhat) become that until the last 1/4 of the book. If you can stick with the story that long then good for you!
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Posted July 11, 2014
Did I enjoy this book: Not really.
I wasn’t that impressed with the plot, and though I could initially relate to Vera Lundy, I found her less and less likable as the story progressed. I understand Watson’s idea, and it’s a cool one: write a coming-of-age novel about an adult who just happened to skip that step during adolescence. The thing is — Vera Lundy’s displays of immaturity were more than just exasperating — they were downright inappropriate. Maybe I’m a stiff-necked goody two-shoes, but I can’t imagine ANYONE — no matter how immature or unintelligent they happen to be — would think that going alone to your underage student’s hotel room, sharing alcohol and cigarettes with her, and then walking home together in the dark is anywhere close to a good idea.
I know people overindulge (heaven knows I’m guilty of it at times). I know people don’t always tell the whole truth, and I know that very intelligent, rational people sometimes make very, VERY bad choices. I just . . . I think instead of inching a toe over the line, Watson had Lundy vault over it and keep on running, and it ruined the book for me.
Would I recommend it: Not so much.
As reviewed by Melissa at Every Free Chance Books.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Posted April 29, 2014
Vera Lunday has an avid interest in solving murder mysteries. As a teenager, a classmate Heidi Duplessis was murdered and her alleged murderer died in prison before he could be convicted. Quite some time previous to this devastating act, Vera started keeping a journal in which she wrote about her research into serial killers. All of this interest and writing led to Vera being tormented by those who wondered if she had something to do with the murder of Heidi. Vera isn’t playacting at being a sleuth; her interest and skills are sharp but not honed well enough to actually solve anything with solid evidence!
Things are looking upward when Vera is hired as a substitute teacher in an all girls’ prep school. Her students are initially respectful although highly unmotivated. Indeed, their focus is on the death of the Dean’s niece, a very young girl recently found murdered. They want to talk about it and they don’t want to deal with it at all, ordinary responses to a shock that most imagine certainly would never happen in their small world.
So Vera begins a series of discussions with her students about Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. The characters of her students are revealed slowly but surely in these discussions. One student, Jensen Willard, oddly sets herself apart from the other girls and yet has a remarkable understanding and sensitivity about the character Holden Caulfield in the novel, a connection that seems to resonate with her own experience. She’s spunky at times, as critical as Holden is, and searingly cruel in her comments in her journal which only Vera reads. Another student disagrees with even having these discussions and it is she who will suffer most in a way shocking both to her fellow students and the reader.
Jen’s journal responses begin to undergo a transformation in which she hints often of suffering and death. Vera, however, alerts no one and even might be said to have saved Jen but for what? The police, however, wonder about what they regard as a prurient interest in murder crimes and are closely monitoring Vera’s behavior.
At several points Vera’s communications with Jensen reveal parallel thoughts and feelings, a questionable exchange in which establishing a bond seems to Vera to be more important than notifying professionals about a very troubled and perhaps a criminal student, a reality that in other states by law mandates that a teacher notify school authorities about a dangerous situation with a student. Vera’s revelations about her own troubled teenage thoughts and words may or may not make a difference to Jen, but to Vera it is worth the risk. Yet the reader will wonder what Jen said that would heal or intensify Jen’s destructive thoughts and desires.
What Has Become of You is a psychological suspense thriller that will keep the reader rapidly turning pages. It’s plot is carefully structured and defies all reader predictions at many points including the anticlimactic ending. Very nicely done, Jan Elizabeth Watson and definitely recommended!
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