Cover image of "Watch Me Disappear," a novel about a woman who is presumed dead

Gone Girl and its many less successful imitators have crowded bookstore shelves in recent years, so my natural tendency is to yawn when I come across another novel that marketers or critics compare to it. However, Janelle Brown‘s new thriller, Watch Me Disappear, merits the comparison. A forty-something Berkeley housewife mysteriously disappears, and what we think about her steadily erodes as the story unfolds. In the end, we’re left shaking our heads, a little dizzy from all the surprises we’ve encountered as the tale reached its resolution.

Sybilla “Billie” Flanagan lives with her husband Jonathan and fifteen-year-old daughter Olive in Berkeley’s Elmwood District, in an old brown-shingle home just off College Avenue. They’re a seemingly typical upper-middle-class Bay Area family. Jonathan is a senior editor at a magazine that covers the tech industry. Olive is a junior at a private, all-girls preparatory school in Oakland. And Billie, though an artist in her younger years, has devoted herself to homemaking.

Presumed dead for almost a year

Now, however, Billie has been missing for nearly a year and is presumed dead. In the years immediately before her disappearance, she had left home from time to time for long weekends to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. But she hasn’t returned from her last backpacking trip in Desolation Wilderness. She has simply disappeared, and a protracted search has failed to turn up any clue as to what happened to her. In his grief, and his concern for Olive, Jonathan has left his job at the magazine to write a memoir about his life with Billie. He’s now in financial straits, struggling to pay the mortgage and dodging calls from Olive’s school about her tuition bill—and he can’t access the money from Billie’s $250,000 life insurance policy because there’s no death certificate. Billie is only presumed dead.

Then things get worse.

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown ★★★★☆

Gradually, Jonathan begins to learn unsettling facts about the life Billie led after running away from home at age sixteen. To make matters worse, Olive begins having conversations with her dead mother. She insists that Billie is alive and wants to be found. As Jonathan and Olive separately pursue investigations into their disappearing wife and mother, Billie’s past life comes back to haunt them.

Watch Me Disappear is suspenseful to a fault. Though a little slow on the uptake, the novel speeds up as the complications multiply—and most readers will be surprised by the ending.

Check out my review of Gone Girl here: A bestselling New York Times thriller that’s worth all the fuss.

This is one of the many Good books by Berkeley authors.

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