By Ekta R. Garg
April 1, 2020
Release date: March 3, 2020
Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars
Two young women make an awful discovery and must decide whether they should speak up or stay quiet. Their personal challenges and the ill fate of the city where they live make their choice that much harder. If they speak up, they might expose the unsavory parts of their lives to the world. If they do nothing, people may die. Author Caitlin Mullen presents readers with the melancholic backdrop of a failing Atlantic City in her overlong novel Please See Us.
Lily Louten comes home to Atlantic City so she can escape her life in New York. Nothing, she thinks, could be worse than the scandal she’s left behind. Her boyfriend, Matthew, an up-and-coming artist, betrayed her and humiliated her. Worse, he did it in the name of “art” and actually expected her to understand. Now Lily just wants to figure out what she’s going to do next.
Her mother calls in a favor and gets her a job interview at a spa in one of the casinos in town. Working the front desk of a place that promises to wax and exfoliate a woman into the best version of herself is a far cry from the glamorous art world where Lily scouted new talent and attended parties soaked in champagne and crudités. Still, it’s better than sitting at home, and when she gets the job Lily feels like life might become bearable once again.
In another part of the city, Ava, who goes by Clara, and her aunt, Des, wake up every morning trying to figure out how to pay the bills. Clara has a gift: she has psychic abilities. She receives visions about people and places. At only 16, she’s dropped out of school and spends her days trying to convince tourists—or, anyone, really—to pay her to read their tarot cards. Des dances in one of the clubs, and neither of them make enough money to satisfy their landlord or the utility companies.
When the uncle of a missing girl comes to Clara for a reading, the result disturbs Clara. She tries to soften the blow of the vision she sees, but she can’t hide it from herself. Something bad has either happened to this girl or is going to happen soon. After the uncle leaves, Clara continues to receive more visions. It’s a jumble of images and impressions that frighten her, but she doesn’t know what to do about it.
Des is only focused on the money that needs to come in, and Clara’s mother deserted her years earlier. Clara knows her mother had the same gift she does, and she wishes she could ask her mother for help interpreting the visions. She meets Lily, and the two form an uneasy friendship. Having no one else to turn to, Clara confides in Lily what she sees. As more women go missing, Lily and Clara realize the visions are connected to them. If they don’t say something soon, the danger could careen into their own lives.
Author Caitlin Mullen’s prose establishes the maturity and heft with which she tells the story. Early in the book, from the point of view of one of the missing women, Mullen writes, “If she could do it again, she wouldn’t pick up a needle after she was canned, wouldn’t feel so relieved that heroin came cheap. When she got clean, she like did in ’96, ’98, ’03, ’07, she would stay that way.” From Lily’s point of view, Mullen writes, “[I]t was unsettling to be in Atlantic City again—coming home had filled me with an inarticulate dread. … The entire town was like a dreamscape titled toward nightmare.”
Mullen chooses to tell the story from first person in the sections on Lily and Clara and from third person in the sections on the missing women. A few other characters also receive some attention, and therein lies part of the problem. The book tries to allow for too many people’s perspectives. While Mullen’s narrative follows a measured pace, giving voice to so many characters makes the novel drag. Readers might wonder whether this is more literary fiction and less a mystery or thriller.
The revelation of the person responsible for the missing women might surprise readers. In some ways, it’s unsatisfactory and will leave readers wondering why they needed to read as far as they did to make the discovery. Also, characters who seem to be given relative importance disappear only to pop up later without warning or explanation.
The haunting mood Mullen sets for the book is pitch perfect, but the story tries to tackle too many areas at once. Its overly ambitious approach will make readers want to Borrow Please See Us.