Watch Me Disappear

Watch Me Disappear

by Janelle Brown


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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The disappearance of a beautiful, charismatic mother leaves her family to piece together her secrets in this propulsive novel for fans of Big Little Lies—from the bestselling author of All We Ever Wanted Was Everything.

Watch Me Disappear is just as riveting as Gone Girl.”—San Francisco Chronicle

Who you want people to be makes you blind to who they really are.

It’s been a year since Billie Flanagan—a Berkeley mom with an enviable life—went on a solo hike in Desolation Wilderness and vanished from the trail. Her body was never found, just a shattered cellphone and a solitary hiking boot. Her husband and teenage daughter have been coping with Billie’s death the best they can: Jonathan drinks as he works on a loving memoir about his marriage; Olive grows remote, from both her father and her friends at the all-girls school she attends.

But then Olive starts having strange visions of her mother, still alive. Jonathan worries about Olive’s emotional stability, until he starts unearthing secrets from Billie’s past that bring into question everything he thought he understood about his wife. Who was the woman he knew as Billie Flanagan?

Together, Olive and Jonathan embark on a quest for the truth—about Billie, but also about themselves, learning, in the process, about all the ways that love can distort what we choose to see. Janelle Brown’s insights into the dynamics of intimate relationships will make you question the stories you tell yourself about the people you love, while her nervy storytelling will keep you guessing until the very last page.

Praise for Watch Me Disappear

Watch Me Disappear is a surprising and compelling read. Like the best novels, it takes the reader somewhere she wouldn’t otherwise allow herself to go. . . . It’s strongest in the places that matter most: in the believability of its characters and the irresistibility of its plot.”Chicago Tribune

“Janelle Brown’s third family drama delivers an incisive and emotional view of how grief and recovery from loss can seep into each aspect of a person’s life. . . . Brown imbues realism in each character, whose complicated emotions fuel the suspenseful story.”Associated Press

“When a Berkeley mother vanishes and is declared dead, her daughter is convinced she’s alive in Janelle Brown’s thriller, calling to mind Big Little Lies and Gone Girl.”Variety

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780812989489
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/08/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 27,749
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Janelle Brown is the New York Times bestselling author of All We Ever Wanted Was Everything and This Is Where We Live. An essayist and a journalist, she has written for Vogue, The New York Times, Elle, Wired, Self, the Los Angeles Times, Salon, and numerous other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two children.

Read an Excerpt

Olive is crossing from the Sunshine Wing to the Redwood Wing, on her way to her third-period English class, when her dead mother appears for the first time. Weaving through the eddies of girls, twenty-six pounds of textbooks tugging at her shoulder, the blue skirt of her uniform clinging stubbornly to her thighs, Olive suddenly feels as if she might faint. She assumes at first that she is just overheating. Claremont Prep is housed in a rambling nineteenth-century Craftsman mansion that has been neglected in the name of “authenticity”--the knobs to the classrooms are all original cut crystal and spin uselessly when you turn them, and the windows don’t actually open because they’ve been lacquered over too many times, and Olive often has to take cold showers after badminton practice because the boiler can’t keep up with the demand of twelve girls simultaneously shaving their legs--and on rainy days, like this one, the overworked furnace fills the hallways with a moist fug of girl-scented heat.
Olive stops and presses her hand against the cool glass of a display case to stabilize herself. She digs in her backpack for a bottle of water and closes her eyes. She feels as if she is standing at the center of a turntable, the hallway whipping around her in dizzying circles. She catches an acrid whiff, as if something is burning.
When she opens her eyes again, she is somewhere else entirely. Or, rather, she is still in the main hall of Claremont Prep--she senses the thrum of bodies swinging past, the drumming of the rain against the stained-glass clerestory windows--but somehow she is also somewhere else entirely. A beach, to be exact.
The beach isn’t really there, of course it’s not, and yet . . . there it is: the overcast sky, the pebbly sand, the dunes lashed with sea grass, waves that are dark and hungry. She can almost feel her Converse sneakers shifting in the sand, the salty air sticking to her skin. This alternate world seems to exist as an overlay draped across her surroundings: Through the waves Olive is dimly aware of two other junior girls--Ming and Tracy--hanging up posters for the Fall Frolic; and just behind the ragged dunes is a line of lockers; and somewhere inside that thrashing surf is the double-doored entrance of the Redwood Wing. It is as if the two worlds exist simultaneously, each overlapping the other, a kind of waking dream.
She blinks. It doesn’t go away.
The time they gave her nitrous at the dentist’s office: That’s how she feels now, her brain opaque, diffuse, as if someone has reset its dial at half speed. Time seems to have stopped, or at least slowed. She senses her body tipping backward, the backpack full of books losing the battle against gravity. The third-period bell is ringing somewhere faintly in the distance.
That’s when she sees her mother.
Billie stands a few yards away, right where the sea meets the sand, the water slapping at her bare toes. It is as if she’s been standing there the whole time and Olive has only just grown aware of her.
Her mother’s hair is long and loose, the brown giving way to silver at the part. It flies in a wild halo around her face. She is wearing a gauzy white dress that whips around her bare legs as the wind blows off the sea, its hem dark with ocean spray. Her mom was never a wearer of dresses (she tended toward performance fleece), so this strikes Olive as slightly weird (as if nothing else happening here is weird?), but still. It’s her. Mom. Olive feels the word swell up inside her, painfully filling her lungs until it stops her breath entirely.
Despite her diaphanous appearance, Billie’s voice isn’t at all spectral; it’s strong and clear, as if right inside Olive’s brain, and loud enough to drown out the frothy shrieks of the girls down the hall. Olive opens her own mouth and gasps out the only word that she can muster: “Mom?”
“Olive,” Billie says, her voice lower now, almost chiding. “I miss you. Why aren’t you looking?”
“Looking for what?” She’s hallucinating, isn’t she? She isn’t really talking to her dead mom. She closes her eyes and opens them again.
Her mom is still there, looking amused. She smiles, revealing deep grooves in her sun-etched face, and she outstretches her hand as if to take Olive’s own. “Olive,” she says with a note of disappointment in her voice. “You aren’t trying hard enough.”
There’s a burning sensation in Olive’s chest that’s making it hard to breathe. “I’m trying as hard as I can, Mom,” Olive whispers, tears welling up in her eyes, but the weird thing is that she doesn’t feel sad, not at all. She feels almost . . . transcendent, as if she’s thisclose to getting the answer to some vital question that will make everything clear.
And then it comes to her, the answer she’s waiting for. It floods her with a giddy rush: Mom isn’t dead.
Olive lurches forward with the force of this epiphany. Where did it come from? She takes a step toward her mother, and then another as her mother’s figure starts to fade and recede before her; and then she starts to run, although it feels like she is running through wet cement. She feels the backpack slip off her shoulder and slam to the floor behind her. She understands that she needs to grab her mother’s outstretched hand, and that if she can somehow seize it, she will be able to drag her mother through that translucent overlay and back to her, back into Olive’s world, back to . . .
Wham. She runs straight into the wall.
Olive is momentarily blinded with pain--a goose egg will later rise on the spot where forehead connected with plaster--and when she can finally see again, her mother is gone.
The world comes collapsing back in around her: the rank locker smell of dirty gym clothes and spoiling bananas, the squeak of rubber soles on waxed oak, and the thrilled faces of the three gaping freshmen who have gathered around her, so close that she can feel the heat of their gummy breath.
“OhmyGodareyouOK,” says one freshman, an unfortunately pimpled blonde whom Olive has never spoken with before (Holly? Haley?). She leans in as if to touch the lump on Olive’s forehead, and Olive flinches.
“I’m fine, thanks for the concern, really, but it’s no big deal,” Olive says, smiling apologetically as she backs away. She clocks her backpack on the ground a few feet away and sidles toward it. Ming and Tracy, still on ladders at the end of the hall, have stopped what they are doing and are watching with overt fascination the tableau playing out before them. She waves at them. Tracy waves back with a silly little finger-wiggle, but Ming just stares at Olive, her brow puckering behind the severe curtain of her black bangs.
Meanwhile the three freshmen are following closely behind Olive, not ready to give up rubbernecking quite yet. “You just ran straight into the wall,” Haley/Holly says accusatorily. “It was kind of crazytown.”
Olive reaches down and grabs her backpack. Its weight in her hand grounds her, and she swings it over her shoulder, then tugs her skirt straight. The presence of the girls makes it hard to hang on to the answer that she just had in her grasp, and she desperately wants to escape so she can think all this over, figure it out. “Honestly, it’s nothing,” she says. The girls continue to peck around her, unsatisfied. Oh, please let me be alone, she thinks. “Just,” and her voice drops as if letting them in on a secret, “I’m a little hungover. You know?”
“Ohhhhh,” the girls say in low knowing voices that fail to conceal their utter unknowingness. Not that Olive knows much, either--she’s been hungover exactly once in her life, after a sleepover at Natalie’s house during which she polished off half of a leftover bottle of Christmas crème de menthe. But one thing she’s learned during her five-year career at Claremont Prep is that underclass girls believe there are secrets to a better life that will someday be unlocked, like the upper levels of a videogame, once they are able to drive a car or procure alcohol or get their braces off. She wishes she could tell these girls that things get easier, but in her experience they don’t. Not really. (With the possible exception of being able to drive yourself: That is pretty great.) You just discover that there are even bigger, more complicated problems that you have to solve.
In any case, with this small untruth, Olive is at last able to untangle herself. She continues to walk in the direction of the Redwood Wing, aware that the girls are whispering behind her. (She hears just a snippet: You know, the girl with the dead mom . . . ) And then, as the warning bell rings, she turns abruptly and exits to the courtyard.
The October air is sharp and wet against her face. She stands under the eaves, the rain splattering the rubber shells of her Converses, and tries to focus. Mom isn’t dead. She allows herself this thought again, gingerly, as if she’s metering out a particularly tasty piece of chocolate cake. The storm rushes through the oak trees, sending a shiver across them, and Olive realizes that she’s trembling.

Reading Group Guide

1. Is it natural for a mother to want to leave her family sometimes, even if most don’t act on it? How would the story be different if Jonathan had been the one to disappear?

2. How do you think the author meant to portray Jonathan? Did his relationship with Harmony change the way you saw him?

3. Do you believe there was genuine love in Billie and Jonathan’s marriage? To what extent is some degree of secrecy a normal, even necessary, part of a marriage?

4. Olive felt that she was receiving psychic messages from her missing mother. Do you think this really was something paranormal? Part of a mother-daughter bond? A neurological condition? Have you ever felt some kind of unexplained communication with a parent or child or someone you love? If so, did you experience it on your own—as a dream or an experience of heightened intuition—or with the help of a psychic medium, like the Sharon Parkins character in the novel?

5. How does Olive’s growing self-awareness and the revelation that comes with it fit into the novel’s larger theme of searching for one’s true identity? Discuss the ways other characters have sought to discover—or change—their personas.

6. Throughout the novel, you get to see Billie through different perspectives—from her daughter, her husband, her friends, and more. After finishing the novel, do you feel like you know who Billie really is, or do you still find her to be a mystery?

7. Is Billie a classic femme fatale? Why or why not? Is she a feminist character?

8. As you read, there are clues that suggest different possible endings for Billie. Were you surprised by the ending? If you were, how did you think it would end and why?

9. How do you get to know someone who lies to themself? Can you ever really know a person?

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Watch Me Disappear 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 34 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down!! It reminds me of Where’d You Go, Bernadette and I loved it! Yes it’s a mystery—a very good one— but it also deals with love, growing up, family, losing love, and so many other things that make you really feel involved in the characters’ lives. I highly suggest it to any one with any kind of interest in reading. It has something for everyone!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The examination of love and love lost is the overriding theme of this novel. How do we chose who we fall in love with and how do we remember the loved one once they are gone? We can delve even deeper into the reasons for Billie’s shortcomings and inability to love. Difficult to understand Olive’s emotions..explained away as teenage behavior. Not enough.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When I first started reading this book I expected it to be just another "vanishing" type book- somebody goes missing, etc... however, this turned into one of the best books I've ever read. So glad I didn't miss it. Sybilla's character is at the heart of the story, who is she really? What is in her heart? Her husband puts her up on such a high pedestal that it becomes slightly annoying- nobody is that perfect!! Later, as her past is slowly revealed, it's almost gratifying that she's done some apparently shady things by society's standards. But then again she lives by her own standards and refuses to be pigeonholed. The brilliance of this is the entire time I'm reading the book that's exactly what I'm trying to do- fit her into a box. Judge her by her behavior rather than what's inside at her core- a point the author frequently notes but goes unnoticed (at least by me) As the story unfolds we get to see her many facets through the eyes of those who knew her, though the facets are often at odds with each other. And therein lies the mystery. She is a maverick who truly plays by her own rules. No one really knows her or the reasons behind her actions, only her. Which points to a larger picture in that each of us is a mystery to those around one else sees who we really are inside at the core only facets of ourselves are visible to others and even those are tinted by our individual lenses. Simultaneously, others see parts of us that we are not aware of. This book minus the last chapter would have still been a good book, with it's myriad of twists and turns and well developed characters. But the last chapter just blew me away- elevating it to a whole different level. I feel changed somehow after reading it......a very powerful story, one that will remain with me for many years to come. I highly reccomend reading it- it will not dissapoint.
3no7 More than 1 year ago
“Watch Me Disappear” by Janelle Brown is an interesting spin on a mystery story. It is not about the death of wife and mother Billy Flanagan who disappeared almost one year previously while backpacking along the Pacific Crest Trail in Desolation Wilderness. It is about the consequences of that event, a family in crisis. It is about her husband Jonathan and daughter Olive who are left behind, haunted by “missing and presumed dead,” a phrase with no conclusion. Jonathan quits his job and is writing a book, a memoir inspired by his life with Billy. As the one-year anniversary of Billy’s disappearance approaches, Jonathan prepares to have her declared legally dead. One day at school, Olivia sees her mother as if in a dream, chiding her “Why aren’t you looking?” She is consumed with doubt and guilt. “What if Mom is still alive, somewhere, and she has reached out to let me know?” Questions surface. Jonathan’s search for answers exposes his wife’s secret and highly problematic history. Who was this woman he married? Who was this mother of his child? What is truth and what is fiction? Eventually the past comes crashing into the present like a dead tree limb, spewing splinters everywhere, and leaving a cavernous gap in the tree trunk of their lives. Secrets are revealed that none of the players anticipated. And even when the quest seems to be over, is it really? The details come out in the end, in the very last word. Random House Publishing Group, NetGalley, and Janelle Brown gave me a copy of “Watch Me Disappear” for an impartial review. The pace was slow but steady. The personality of each character developed as the book progressed, and there were dynamic and interesting relationships between the characters. I usually don't read books of this kind, but the description was intriguing, and I really enjoyed reading it. The last sentence is one of the best ever.
Xkoqueen More than 1 year ago
Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown is an absolutely riveting mystery. One mystery is where is Billie Flanagan, mother of Olive and wife of Jonathan. The other mystery is who is Billie Flanagan. Watch Me Disappear starts nearly a year after Billie Flanagan disappeared while hiking solo in the Desolation Wilderness. The story is told in third person narrative. Olive’s perspective is told through her daily experiences and thoughts, while Jonathan’s thoughts are conveyed through the memoir he is trying to write about his life with Billie. It is not only an interesting story layout, but an interesting way to convey how Jonathan and Olive struggle with not just the disappearance of a loved one but of the mind-boggling revelations of Billie’s complex web of secrets from prior lives. One of Billie’s past lives comes back to haunt her through the reconnection with a friend named Harmony. At first Harmony seems like a positive, good-hearted friend (think Suki from the Gilmore Girls television program), but as the story unfolds, Harmony’s actions and intentions become increasing questionable. Harmony quickly becomes a very untrustworthy, unlikable character. Being a teenager is hard enough, but being a somewhat odd teen whose mother is presumed dead is even harder. As the one year anniversary of her mother’s disappearance approaches, Olive becomes convinced that her mother is not really dead, and that leads her to some heavy soul searching about how their relationship clearly lead to her mother leaving her. The emotional gauntlet that Olive must navigate is exhausting. More exhausting is Jonathan’s path. He needs closure. He wants Olive’s belief that her mother is alive to be true, but if Olive is right, why did his wife leave him and their beloved daughter. Jonathan also questions his role in his wife’s disappearance—whether it is a decision to foolishly hike alone or a decision to disappear from their lives. It is unfathomable until he starts to dig deeper into Billie’s laptop and the dwindling family finances. As Jonathan digs deeper, he finds that his wife didn’t fabricate her past as much as she bended the truth to make her look better. As people from her past are pulled into the story, Jonathan gets a better, fuller picture of who is wife really was. Through his search he along with the reader questions how much he truly knew about his wife—or anyone for that matter. He questions the foundation of his marriage. Part mystery, part character study, Watch Me Disappear is a page-turner. Did Billie runway? If so, why? Does she want to be found as Olive believes? Did she disappear to push Jonathan and Olive out of their comfort zone in order to reinvent her family? Did she disappear to avoid dealing with the parts of her reality of which she was ashamed? Or did she simply fall to her death while hiking? Not only did the big reveal in the epilogue shock me, but the little revelations throughout the story about all the characters amazed me. Watch Me Disappear is a fantastic read about yearning, loss, and new beginnings.
Anonymous 10 days ago
Loved the suspense
Anonymous 15 days ago
Book had potential, good bones. Jonathan and Olive were wasted characters, should have put more emphasis on their pain, confusion and questions about Billie. Weird plot lines that did nothing for the story. Jumbled mess. AND Billie is a selfish B!
Anonymous 3 months ago
I normally do not write reviews, but this book is really good. It was definitely hard to put down. There were some parts of the book that I thought were boring. The plot twists definitely got me. It felt like it was in real life and I felt close to the characters. I was hurt when olive and Johnathon were too. Very good book. Now, I'm trying to find a book like this one...
Anonymous 5 months ago
A "could not put it down" book with interesting plot - moved at a good pace and never boring.
Anonymous 5 months ago
The main character of this gripping book is so egocentric and narcissistic that she is incapable of truly loving anyone but herself . As the author wisely notes, we love who we wish the beloved was not who they really are. Grief, loss, and self awareness come together to make for a great read.
Anonymous 5 months ago
I really enjoyed reading Watch Me Disappear. Different story line than I was expecting. Also, each character is brought to life as believable and real. Thank you.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Keeps you intrigued the entire way through
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was going to give one star, but the writing style was proficient enough to earn two. The premise of the book seemed promising, but the story was slow going and I didn't particularly like any of the characters, so I didn't care much about what happened to them. Billie's definitely a dramatic nutter, enough said.
SGMomma More than 1 year ago
Great story. Picks up about a year after the death of Billie and how her death has impacted her husband and daughter. She went hiking and never returned. The questions that start to creep into her husband and daughter's mind as the story continues will definitely keep you engaged in this story. Great read from beginning to the END!
toReadistoEscape More than 1 year ago
I wanted to read this book because it was compared to Big Little Lies. After reading it, I don’t think it lives up to that comparison, but it was an enjoyable read. I loved the unraveling of all the secrets and the twists and turns. The ending is the best. I did get a little bored in the middle of the book. The portion where the husband, Johnathan is writing his memoir of his wife, Billie did not interest me. There was too much focus on past memories that were not always significant to the story and I just didn’t enjoy reading. The visions the Olive has are somewhat unbelievable, but the author does try to give some explanation for them. I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this book and will recommend to many friends! Just when I thought I had it figured out, it went in a different direction. Such a great reminder that when we are looking for something, we can find many ways to support our suspicion. Ways that often end up meaning something else entirely. This book would make a great movie, and I am looking up other books by this author to read next. I had a hard time putting this book down!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this - also liked reading about people on that part of the west coast.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Definitely a good read! Love the mystery direction she took with this book!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I have read in a long time. Great detail, character development, and suspense. This is the first book I have read by this author but now will be reading more. I can usually guess the endings and find most books predictable but this left some surprises. I REALLY thought Harmony would come out as the one who took Billy's life. I like to be surprised!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. Everything I've ever wanted in a book... A plot that keeps you guessing and characters that keep you hooked.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Overall a well written book.
NikkisNovelNiche More than 1 year ago
"And maybe love isn't magical, either. Maybe love comes down to your issues aligning with someone else's, tongue into groove.Your neuroses, all that baggage from your past, somehow the perfect match to theirs: You need someone to take care of, and they need to be taken care of. You long for someone creative, they need someone stable. And so forth." I ended up enjoying this book a lot more than I anticipated. This review is going to be quite hard to write without revealing any spoilers but I am going to try my best. The beginning was a bit slow and I started getting that sense of dread that this would be one more book added to my dreaded DNF pile - which is why it took me almost two months to finish it. I didn't think I would be able to handle the guilt of adding another book to that pile so soon after that last so I chose to plod on slowly but steadily and about halfway through the plot picked up immensely and I got sucked into the book. The story touches on a lot of different subjects: family dynamic, marriages and their problems and more importantly - how much do we really know someone? I found this to be the most interesting part of the book. You see your significant other every day, or even your best friend, a co-worker, whoever it is.... but do you really know them?? Who knows what parts of themselves that someone keeps inside, choosing to never share, either from shame or embarrassment, or the sad fact that they feel there is really no one in their life that they can entrust with this information that will not look at them or treat them differently once acquiring this knowledge about them. Personally, I know there are things that I have felt or experienced that I have never talked about with anyone because of these feelings. This book has made me wonder how much I really know the people in my life. I've been on a trend of reading books with a lot of twists and turns that have kept me guessing and this book continued that trend. Partway through, I thought I had everything figured out and was disappointed as I thought I had spent all this time plodding my way though the novel only to figure it out halfway through and then the story took another twist that had be second guessing myself. I then third and fourth and fifth guessed myself. I thought this book had good character development with Olive and Jonathan, but honestly I found Billie to be a bit annoying. Like real life, you don't have to love everyone though and this annoyance did not detract from the story at all. I recommend this book to fans of Gone Girl as I found the writing style slightly similar and that book started off at the same pace. Disclaimer: I received this book from NetGalley in return for my honest and unbiased opinion.
CarolineA More than 1 year ago
When I started this book I thought I would hate it. I didn’t care for the narration style. But as I continued to read I found myself growing more and more invested in the mystery. Was Olive really psychic and seeing real visions of her mother? Did Billie fake her death? Was she kidnapped? Murdered? Did she really just fall into a ravine or something equally as tragic and awful while off hiking alone in the woods? The theories were circling through my head the entire time I read this story. By the time I got to the epilogue, I had to pull my jaw off the ground. Janelle Brown really hit the nail on the head with this amazing ending. The real central theme of this book is, can you really know someone? Really truly know the real them, not just the mask they wear for the people around them? As Jonathan and Olive dig into Billie’s life and her past, that question begins to really take over Jonathan’s thought process. As he attempts to write the love story he shared with his wife, before her death a year earlier. As he attempts to have her officially, legally, declared dead so he and his daughter can move on. As he begins to dig up more and more of Billie’s secrets… I really don’t even know what to say in this review because everything I want to gush about will ruin everything for anyone who hasn’t read this book. I haven’t read a lot of mysteries, but this is one of the better ones I have read and I’d rank Watch Me Disappear one almost as high as Gone Girl. Should you read it? If you like book that keeps you guessing until the last page, THIS is the book for you!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a well-written novel about the disappearance of Billie, wife and mother with a lot of mystery to her background. It's an easy, pleasant enough summer read. But it's not all that realistic. The search involves things that one would think had been gone through early on in a missing person investigation. The characters are on the edge that separates stereotypical from believable. It's a good summer beach read, if one just enjoys the story and doesn't think to much about how realistic the scenario is.