“One of the best books I’ve read all year.”—Barbara O’Neal, author of The Garden of Happy Endings
“What do you think happened to your husband, Mrs. Keller?”
The Sunday morning starts like any other, aside from the slight hangover. Dani Keller wakes up on her Seattle houseboat, a headache building behind her eyes from the wine she drank at a party the night before. But on this particular Sunday morning, she’s surprised to see that her husband, Ian, is not home. As the hours pass, Dani fills her day with small things. But still, Ian does not return. Irritation shifts to worry, worry slides almost imperceptibly into panic. And then, like a relentless blackness, the terrible realization hits Dani: He’s gone.
As the police work methodically through all the logical explanations—he’s hurt, he’s run off, he’s been killed—Dani searches frantically for a clue as to whether Ian is in fact dead or alive. And, slowly, she unpacks their relationship, holding each moment up to the light: from its intense, adulterous beginning, to the grandeur of their new love, to the difficulties of forever. She examines all the sins she can—and cannot—remember. As the days pass, Dani will plumb the depths of her conscience, turning over and revealing the darkest of her secrets in order to discover the hard truth—about herself, her husband, and their lives together.
“A thought-provoking and moving exploration.”—New York Times bestselling author Erica Bauermeister
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Caletti / HE'S GONE
I used to imagine it sometimes, what would happen if one day I just didn’t come home. Not that I ever considered running off— I could never actually do that, even if I occasionally had that fantasy about driving south and checking in to some hotel. Someplace with bathrobes, for sure. I love those. But, no, the thought was less about escape and more about some cruel intervention of fate. What if, say, the clichéd bus hit me as I crossed the clichéd street? The Mack truck. Whatever it was, something terrible would happen and my family would have to return home to find all the daily pieces of my interrupted life. My husband would see my cup of coffee, half finished, a curve of my lipstick on the brim. My mother would see my flannel pajamas with the Eiffel Towers on them in the laundry basket and the ChapStick on my nightstand. My book would be on the bed, open to the place I’d left off, and my hair would still be entwined in my brush. There would be my really expensive wrinkle minimizer, which honestly didn’t minimize much of anything, and my phone charger still plugged into the wall. This is how it would look, I would think. This stuff here.
Whenever I had to get on a plane, I played that game in my head, too. I worried about what people might find afterward, at my house. You know, if we went down in a fiery ball, wearing our yellow flotation devices with the helpful little whistles attached. Does anyone else do this? Fixate on impossible and pointless mental puzzles? I don’t know. Flying used to be fun, but after 9/11 I did this stupid thing where I would wonder if I should have hidden certain stuff before I left home. Not that there would be much to hide—I’m not guilty of too many things. But I’d worry about those few old love letters, the ones I’d kept from the early days with my first husband, which Ian would have hated to discover. And that half bottle of Vicodin from that root canal, which I’d kept in case I was hit with some emotional crisis I couldn’t handle. Oh, and that red lace thong-thing that Ian gave me one Valentine’s Day. I don’t know what he was thinking. If I never came home, my daughter might see it and think I actually wore it. That particular mental image might scar the poor girl for the rest of her life.
That’s pretty much been the extent of my secrets. I guess you could say my conscience works overtime. And while I never actually moved the red lace thong or hid the pill bottle before I traveled, I did wipe up spilled stuff in the microwave and remove that big slab of fluff from the dryer vent that wasn’t supposed to be in the dryer vent. I made sure my house was clean. Tidying up my domestic crimes so no one would find out that I made messes and couldn’t keep my appliances under control, which is probably some home version of the wear-clean-underwear-in-case-of-an-accident idea.
These head games—I guess they’re you, in your small way, trying to psych out the here-gone-ness of life, or maybe they’re about the awareness that comes after a certain age of inevitable grief hovering nearby. Or maybe they’re just about wanting to be good, even in death. Avoiding humiliation even when you’re stone-cold gone. I don’t know. But what I do know, what I’ve thought about since that day, is that it was always me I imagined suddenly missing. I never imagined finding anyone else’s pill bottles or the slippers that had formed to their feet, now ditched under the bed. I didn’t think about discovering someone else’s breakfast dishes or the change from their pocket left out on the dresser, their presence sitting right next to their absence.
That morning, well, the objects around me have no more significance than they did the day before. It seems wrong, doesn’t it? His reading glasses on the nightstand don’t send me some big message. His water glass doesn’t tell me the things I should know. I’d been dreaming—I was up high somewhere and I was scared and there was some kind of pounding noise, but when I open my eyes, I realize it’s a dream trick and that the sound is real. It’s outside my window. Our boat must have gotten loose or something, and it’s banging against the dock.
I lie there, catching up to the facts of my life as one does before first getting up, looking at the white of the curtains and trying to guess what the weather’s like. Dim white, likely cloudy. In Seattle, cloudy is a good prediction no matter what the season. I don’t check to see whether he’s there next to me or not. I guess I just assume he’s there, because it’s still early. We have one of those astronaut-foam-type mattresses, where you can thrash around and the other person won’t even notice. I think the advertisement shows a glass of water, which sits still and undisturbed on the bed in spite of some guy jumping next to it. Anyway, the dog can get up there, and you won’t even know it until you open your eyes and find him staring right at you.
I roll over. I’m trying to remember as best as I can. I recall expecting to see the hill of his shoulders turned away from me, his tidy black hair on the pillow. But I see only the empty bed next to me. Wide, empty, glorious space, and I stretch my legs over to his side and I’m happy about it, that space. I listen, trying to determine if he’s home. There’s that stupid banging, but the house seems still. Maybe he went for a run, or to work, even though it’s Sunday, which wouldn’t be unusual. Yeah: I realize there are no footsteps, or the sound of the toaster lever being pushed down, or the hum of television voices. He’s likely gone, and I’m relieved. I’m sure I’m not the only wife who feels that—the small relief at his absence. I love him very much, I do; but the house to yourself . . . No need for conversation or company or the press of his presence . . . Ah—coffee in bed, the thrill of aloneness, and a couple of Oreos on a paper towel for breakfast—bliss.
But first there’s that banging.
I get up and walk downstairs. God, I feel it then, the banging in my own head, a nasty throb from too much wine at that horrible party the night before. BetterWorks, Ian’s software company, had released a new product, something that would change the way we share large video files. I don’t really know the details. I should, but I don’t. I want to understand it all, but my mind has its own instant off switch that’s tripped by lengthy explanations, instruction manuals, and rules to board games read aloud. I have a college education, but, I swear, the minute someone wants to enlighten me about how a fax works or how to play hearts, the mental doors slam shut.
The party was one of those swanky affairs, held in the beautiful lobby of the BetterWorks offices on Queen Anne Hill. The night was all shiny black behind those high, high glass windows, and the city sparkled below us. The Space Needle was right there, in all its George Jetson–Tomorrowland glory. Ian’s partner, Nathan Benjamin, was at the party, and I like Nathan. I liked him even before I met him years ago, because he has those two first names, which makes him sound friendly. But the room was full of other people, too, of course—programmers and project managers and investors and investors’ wives, eating fancy little foods off tiny napkins and making witty conversation, and later in the evening the party spilled over to the wide, damp lawn of Kerry Park, which lays adjacent to BetterWorks. All night I pretended not to be shy, even though I’d rather have been home eating popcorn and watching the Travel Channel. I kept pulling at my hem, because Ian had bought me this tight black dress and asked me to wear it and I was mad at myself for agreeing. A Band-Aid would have covered more and cost a lot less. I had heels on, and the floor was slippery, and I kept thinking of the way my sister, Amy, and I used to roller-skate in our garage when we were kids, inching our way around by clutching the workbench and then the bicycles and then the lawn mower.
Reasons for too much wine, right there.
“Oh, no, Poll. Pollux, boy. He didn’t let you out?” My Pollux, my sweet black mutt, he’s getting old. He has to be taken outside the minute you wake up, poor guy. I wipe up the puddle. The thrill of unexpected alone time gives way to irritation. It’s him I’m irritated with. Ian. Overlooking my, our, sweet old dog, who now looks ashamed. The pee requires practically half of a roll of paper towels, and there’s that banging and my pounding head.
I step over my heels, which have been abandoned by the door. What a night. I can’t remember ditching them there, or even coming home and getting into bed, to tell you the truth. This isn’t normal for me, I should also say. I rarely have more than a glass of wine, two at the most. I’ve been truly drunk maybe only twice in my life, once way back in high school with Tommy Truello and wine in a box. We drank it before going to dinner at the Velvet Turtle restaurant on our way to the homecoming dance. I was spinning and sick the rest of the night. It scared me. I don’t like to lose control.
Pollux recovers his dignity and trots behind me as I open the door to the back deck. The front end of our small sailboat has come loose, and it’s slamming into the dock with each wave of the lake. I’m glad Ian isn’t here to see it. He’d be pissed. I kneel down; I make a couple of grabs for the boat before catching it, and then I examine it for scratches. It looks okay. I even run my hand along its surface, in case there’s something I can’t see but he’ll surely notice. I was the one to tie it down when we came back in from our sail Friday evening, so it’ll be my fault that the rope hasn’t been secured properly. Narrow miss. He’ll never know, and I’m glad. Ian doesn’t make those kinds of mistakes, and he’s not particularly patient when anyone else does.
He’ll never know I was out here in my robe, either. He’d have an issue with that, as crazy as it sounds. He’s possessive, and it gets irritating. From the way he acts, you’d think the sight of me would draw in the crowds of drooling men out there on their boats. My mom robe, with the bleach stain on the front and the Kleenex in my pocket, is sexy as hell, and all of them will be lining up for sure, just waiting to get a glimpse of me wrapped in terry cloth. Not a big thrill, I promise you. Maybe our neighbor, old Joseph Grayson, might think so, but he’s stoned half the time.
It is a cloudy morning, but they’re the kind of clouds that are rushing off as if they have better things to do. The sun is fighting its way out. I tie the boat down and I’m struck by how beautiful it is on the lake. It hits you sometimes like that, and so I stand there and take it all in. After we’d been married for two years and Abby had graduated and headed to the UW dorms, we moved to Lake Union from The Highlands, that neighborhood on the other side of the bridge that held so much of our tangled history. We (well, Ian) bought our large houseboat at the end of the dock. Whenever I say houseboat to people who aren’t from the city, they think we drive it around. I have to explain that it’s not a boat but a floating home, like in Sleepless in Seattle, only Meg Ryan had better hair than I do. Ian has better hair than Tom Hanks, but Pollux has better hair than all of us, and he’s so humble about it, too.
The view from our home is similar to the one from Ian’s office up on Queen Anne Hill, but at the houseboat it’s spread out in front of us rather than seen from above. Lake Union, the Space Needle, various boats chugging past, seaplanes landing—you feel as if the city is yours out there, that you belong to it, and it to you. I never want to live anywhere else, Ian said once. I could die here and be happy. I knew what he meant. It feels so great right at this moment, even after wiping up pee and with a bad headache and with the feeling that things had gone wrong again between Ian and me the night before. I still feel mostly good, because some ducks paddle past, and then so do a pair of kayakers. The woman in the back waves and I wave, too, and I breathe in and notice that the daffodil bulbs in the pots on the deck are coming up, little arrowheads of green.
I decide against going back to bed. I put a pot of coffee on. Ian must have been in a rush to get out of here this morning, I think, because he hasn’t even made any coffee, and Ian needs his coffee. I also think this: He could be out at Louisa’s right now, bringing us home a pair of foamy lattes and some raspberry muffins, and if he shows up with that fabulous white bag and two cardboard cups, I’ll just consider this batch of French Roast my coffee appetizer. So the pot burbles and I pour Pollux his same old brown breakfast that he’s so thrilled about every single day, and I take that perfect first cup of the morning onto the deck, along with a couple of aspirins. I sit on one of the Adirondack chairs we have out there. I smell the arrival of Northwest spring, and the smell of bacon cooking somewhere, and the smell of gasoline drifting over water. All three of those smells I love. Pollux trots out again, with water droplets on his beard. He squints into the early sun and looks out over the lake like the patron saint of sailors he’s named for. What a good boy.
I sip that coffee, and the steam rises up in the coolness of morning, and Pollux lays his old self down in a spot of sun. I have one of those moments where you simply feel grateful. My headache is giving up, and the irritation is leaving, too, maybe swept away in the first exhilarating rush of caffeine. A sense of peace takes its place. A rare moment of peace, the kind you take in and vow to hold on to but never can. Those moments are gone at the first traffic jam or botched bank statement, in spite of your best intentions. But it’s there now.
I have no idea is what I’m saying. What I keep trying to say.
I have no idea that my husband has vanished.
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation with Deb Caletti
Random House Reader’s Circle: You’ve written many popular teen novels, but He’s Gone is your first novel for adults. What was the inspiration for your adult debut? Did you have the idea long before you began writing it? And how was the writing process different?
Deb Caletti: You never know how—or when—the idea for a book will appear. This one came right when I needed it, shortly after we’d begun discussing the possibility of me writing an adult novel. The inspiration arrived in much the same way that He’s Gone begins. I was lying in bed, trying to determine if my husband was home or not. I was doing that thing you do, where you listen for the sound of footsteps, or the toaster lever being pushed down, or coffee being made. And then, rather handily and helpfully, came the thought: What if you woke up one morning and found that your husband had vanished? The idea of writing the book as a confession came quickly afterward, as did the decision to explore the subjects of guilt and marriage, wrongdoing, and the way those old, treacherous voices from childhood can continue to haunt us. I began work on the book as soon as I could, just after finishing The Story of Us. Sometimes you have an idea that makes you feel like a kid on Halloween night. Can we just skip dinner, so we can go? I wanted to go. I couldn’t wait to start this one.
The writing process wasn’t all that different from my other books. My previous nine young adult novels are full length and fairly complex and character driven, and my readers are already a mixed bag of ages, falling generally in the older teens to adult range. There is always a teen protagonist, but my books also feature adult characters of varying ages—mothers and daughters both struggling with screwed-up love lives, for example, or generations of women with something to say about relationships, family, and identity. I tend to try to push the boundaries of YA, offering more thought-provoking mate- rial than readers of that age might be used to, along with a slower, more literary pace. So writing a book for adults wasn’t a great leap. The only real difference I found was that the boundaries I always try to push didn’t exist anymore. There were no more fences for me to stay in or out of. It was very freeing. I found that, for me, writing within those boundaries is actually in many ways more challenging.
RHRC: He’s Gone takes place in Seattle, where you also live. Do you feel that your life in the city inspired or influenced the novel? If so, how?
D.C.: Setting has always played a huge part in my books, and I have no doubt that’s because I live in such an evocative place. I like to approach setting as if it were character, with a character’s traits and quirks and moods. Seattle—and the San Juan Islands, and the towns of the mountain foothills that I’ve previously written about—all have so much character, it’s hard to cross a street without seeing something to include in a book. We are bombarded with setting here, which is a lucky thing for a writer, I think. It offers itself. He’s Gone primarily takes place in a particularly eccentric and picturesque part of our city—the houseboat community around Lake Union, where I once lived part-time. It seemed an especially fitting setting for the book. First, there is water everywhere, and these characters are, well, literally drowning in guilt. But even more than that, the houseboats and their docks are a little off kilter. Yes, they’re charming and shingled and dripping with gorgeous flowers. Ducks paddle by, and so do friendly kayakers. Sailboats swoop out to the lake on a glorious day. But, too, the houses and boats are rocking and clanging. The old piers sway and creak. On a rainy day, it’s a little spooky. On any day, it’s all slightly deranged.
RHRC: Though the story begins when Ian vanishes, he feels like a fully evolved character by the time we reach the ending. Can you tell us a bit about the challenges of fleshing out a character who is mostly “offscreen”?
D.C.: I like the idea of this, the “off screen” character. I also have one in my book The Story of Us. That character, Janssen Tucker, is totally absent until he appears for his one line at the very end of the book. The idea appeals to me because there are a lot of “offscreen” people in our own lives. You can come to know your partner’s ex or their deceased parent in a very real way, even if you’ve never met them. You can come to have very strong feelings about them, an understanding of them, a full picture, just from what you hear. In writing, the challenge to make a character come alive even when he’s not on the scene is met in the same ways it happens in real life. You hear stories about the person. Your partner tells you about his ex, but so does his best friend, and so does his mother. Maybe you see a photo or hear a rumor. Maybe you hear a voice on an answering machine.
Ian, in He’s Gone, needed to be much closer to the reader than Janssen Tucker did in The Story of Us. Aside from Dani, Ian is the most important character in the book. It’s crucial to feel him right there, even though he’s missing—to feel the press of his control, to even feel his breath on her face during that picnic. He needs to be so well known that we understand both his complicated emotions and the bind those emotions have put Dani in. Dani’s own flashbacks serve this purpose (we actually “see” Ian during those times), but Nathan’s accounts of their relationship flesh out Ian’s character, as do Isabel’s and Abby’s. What we see of his relationship with his children and Mary and especially his father hopefully fill Ian in further. What I also felt helped bring Ian close were the times that Dani heard him speak in her head. That’s about as close in as you can bring someone.
RHRC: Dani has a compelling narrative voice, and it’s easy to take her version of the truth for reality. Ultimately, though, we find out that she’s not a reliable narrator. What made you decide to go this route?
D.C.: I went this route because we are all unreliable narrators, not just in the way we tell our stories to others, but how we tell them to ourselves. Maybe especially how we tell them to ourselves. All of us create our own versions of an event, of our lives, even, not because we’re liars, necessarily, but because we can only see and understand the truth from our own viewpoint, and a shifting viewpoint at that. Facing the truth is a messy business. You’ve got denial, and pride, and the fact that understanding takes time; you’ve got perspective (or lack of it) and the pesky fact that we can only face the truth we can stand to face at any given moment. I didn’t see Dani as being willfully deceitful in the way she tells her story. I saw her as struggling with a hard truth that she hadn’t even entirely admitted to herself yet. It’s one of the toughest human being jobs, I think, being utterly and completely honest with yourself.
RHRC: One aspect of He’s Gone that really stuck with us is the imagery involving butterflies. Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration there?
D.C.: My first marriage was an abusive one, and long after I left it, a very good friend, someone who knew me well, reflected on that time. He said, “You were like a butterfly, caught in a net.” I never forgot those words. Butterflies became personally symbolic to me. I knew I wanted to one day use this symbolism in my writing—the fragility, the strength, the capture, the escape. Because, yes, there is the helplessness of being trapped, but there is also what happens when the butterfly manages to get free.
RHRC: Did you know how He’s Gone would end before you began writing it? If not, can you tell us a bit about some of the other endings you considered, and why you ultimately chose this one?
D.C.: I always say that, for me, writing a book is like a wacky Greyhound bus trip—I know where I’m starting and where I’ll end up, but I have no idea what will happen along the way. He’s Gone was different, though. I didn’t know how the book would end. I struggled with it. I wanted to write the novel as a confession, and so this meant considering the obvious possibility that Dani had indeed harmed Ian. I felt this was the wrong route, though. It would have turned the book into a clichéd abused-woman-kills-husband story, and that felt cheap to me. It would have been a dishonest choice, a disservice, even, to anyone who’d actually been in a similar relationship. In reality, we know who usually ends up being harmed in situations like that, and it isn’t the perpetrator. Perhaps more important, though, in terms of my vision for the book, if Dani had been guilty of harming Ian, the story would have become about a violent act and not about what I wanted it to be about—the complexity and impossibility of assigning guilt; the million gray areas of culpability, which can sit right next to our very black-and-white feelings of shame.
After my father read the book, he handed it back to me and said, “I was really glad she didn’t do it.” And maybe that was the biggest reason that I chose the ending I did. I was really glad she didn’t do it, too.
1. Pollux, Dani’s dog, and Isabel, Dani’s eccentric mother, bring moments of comic relief to He’s Gone, even in the midst of all the dark moments and drama. Do you think this adds to the narrative? Why or why not?
2. Whenever someone in He’s Gone looks for rescue or validation in the form of another person, they end up disappointed— whether it’s Dani having an affair with Ian to escape her abusive marriage or Ian attempting to connect with his father. What do you make of this?
3. “Brief moments of goodness are shockingly persistent. You’re in the dark, darker, darkest, and yet there’s a dog sitting beside you, on his best behavior for a dropped crust, and there’s an industrious line of ducks paddling past, and there’s a grilled cheese maestro. Life insists.” Discuss how this passage exemplifies the broader themes of the novel.
4. Dani thinks Ian is having an affair with Desiree, but it turns out that Desiree is just jealous of Dani and Ian and covetous of the life they share together. From the outside looking in, their relationship seems ideal to her. Discuss how all of the characters in He’s Gone tend to misconstrue situations due to their imperfect perception. What’s the author trying to tell us?
5. How did you feel about Ian after reading about the dinner that he and Dani shared with Paul Hartley Keller? Did it make you like him more? Less?
6. There’s a ceramic bust of Ian that looks exactly like Paul Hartley Keller—so much so that Dani mistakenly assumes he was the model for it. Why can Dani see the resemblance between the two men only in this one inanimate object? What’s the significance of what ultimately happens to the bust?
7. Dani often seems to feel physically threatened by Ian’s daughters, particularly the taciturn Bethy. Do you think this threat is real or imagined? What does it say about violence as a legacy?
8. Did your feelings about Mary change when you finally met her in the present-day narrative? How do you think your initial impressions of her were colored by the fact that He’s Gone is told from Dani’s point of view?
9. He’s Gone is written as Dani’s confession, and much of the book focuses on how guilt (both warranted and unwarranted) colors our lives. How do our experiences dictate what we feel guilty for and what we don’t? What must we do to be able to forgive ourselves and others? Near the end of the story, Dani holds her confession in her arms “like a baby, like my own child.” Why do you think the author chose these words?
10. For most of the novel, Ian seems like a buttoned-up, perfectly controlled person, whose biggest failing is his desire for perfection in everyone around him. Toward the end of the novel we finally find out that he is just as capable of abusive violence as Dani’s first husband. Do you think this revelation has more impact because it’s withheld for so long? What were your feelings about Ian before you found out the full story of the fateful picnic he took with Dani? What were they like after it?
11. Were you surprised to learn that Ian’s affair with Dani wasn’t his first? Why or why not?
12. Did you ever believe that Dani was responsible for Ian’s disappearance? Discuss.