By Ekta R. Garg
January 11, 2017
Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it / 3.5 stars
A student is brutally murdered, and the town’s sheriff vows to find the killer. The more he investigates the death, however, the more questions arise. He realizes that the girl, hailed as a great actress, may have kept the majority of her life off stage. Author Mindy Mejia takes readers into a small town and its scandals in the heart-wrenching novel Everything You Want Me to Be.
Hattie Hoffman knows she’s meant for something more than what her small town of Pine Valley, Minnesota, can offer. As a high school senior, she feels like she’s at a turning point in her life. Once she graduates, she’s leaving southern Minnesota behind and moving to New York City. It’s only in NYC, she knows, that she can find what she was meant to do.
She already has an inkling. She’s spent so much of her life playing a part: the obedient daughter; the gracious best friend; the model employee in the town’s drugstore. If she can play so many different roles every day, surely she can put that talent to good use on stage.
When the new English teacher, Peter Lund, comes to town, Hattie realizes she’s met a kindred spirit: someone who doesn’t belong in Pine Valley. Peter feels it too. He came back to Pine Valley as a kindness to his ailing mother-in-law. His wife, Mary Beth, is a townie and slips right back into life as a farmgirl, but Peter feels increasingly estranged from her and the girl she was back in Minneapolis.
Peter and Hattie inevitably get close, so when Hattie is found stabbed to death on the night of the big school play sheriff Del Goodman begins digging into the people around her. That includes Peter and also Hattie’s boyfriend, Tommy. The difficulty gets compounded by the fact that Del has known Hattie’s family since before she was born; he thinks of Hattie like a daughter.
It’s excruciating for Del to look her parents in the eye and share the details of her murder. He starts to pull apart the various facets of Hattie’s life and then must go back to her parents with her secrets. The adults who care so deeply about her realize they only knew the parts of Hattie that she chose to share, and if they want to find her killer they will need to understand all of her.
Author Mindy Mejia creates vivid characters. Hattie is definitely a young woman of this day and age but one who feels the trappings of small-town life. No matter how far the digital revolution carries the world, people in close proximity to one another will still take a scrutinizing interest in their neighbors. Mejia charts Hattie’s discomfort with the scrutiny in a delicate manner.
Peter’s anguish and inner conflict ring true to real life. While readers may not approve of his actions, they may sympathize with his plight. Mejia creates enough space around Peter to allow for that sympathy, not an easy task for an author.
Mejia has her hero in Del, the father figure who must keep fighting and doing his job to find justice for Hattie. Del balances his own grief with his job in an admirable manner that doesn’t come across as fake; again, Mejia sets up a complex character with success.
If the book can be faulted anywhere, it might be in the fact that Peter wishes to distance himself from small-town life and then lands right in the middle of a stereotypical small-town scandal. His conscience won’t leave him alone about it, however, and therein lies Mejia’s saving grace for Peter and the book. People from all walks of life, Mejia seems to say, are prone to stupid mistakes when they’re not thinking clearly.
Also, the big reveal of the killer’s identity comes across as a little clumsy, which is a shame given how cleanly the rest of the book is plotted. The murder itself and the way authorities find out both feel a touch serendipitous, and readers may feel cheated on that point but by then they may be happy just to know who actually did it.
The book alternates between Hattie, Peter, and Del’s points of view, teasing out the thriller aspect and leading and then misleading readers in the best ways possible before reaching the end. Everything You Want Me to Be Borders on Bookmarking it.