Reviewed by Susan Tepper
What Came Before, the debut literary-suspense novel by Gay Degani, carries a title that is loaded.
For a book that opens under mysterious circumstances, then layers plot on top of plot, constantly building in tension, it stands to reason that both protagonist and reader will become bound up in what came before.
So what did happen before? Well, for starters, Abbie Palmer’s movie star mother committed suicide when Abbie was just four years old. While the child played innocently, unsuspecting, in the adjoining room, actress Virgina Gifford offed herself. Whew! Therefore, it stands to reason that everything going forward in the life of Abbie Palmer – every detail, choice, all that she sees, hears, dreams about, worries over, obsesses over – all become the sum total of the character who makes up Abbie.
Besides losing her mother, Abbie loses her actor father who is away a lot for filming, and when at home he drinks and makes himself emotionally unavailable to his growing daughter. This is the stuff of tragedy. Psychologically heavy.
Yet, in Abbie, Degani gives us a fairly balanced adult woman who seems intent on doing the right thing, while at the same time trying to find out what will make her own life work better. I believe she’s attempting to correct some pretty egregious errors perpetrated against her during her most formative years, whether willingly or otherwise; bad stuff is bad stuff. And Abbie has had an overload. She suffers from insecurities, perhaps takes a little too much Ativan when she’s feeling particularly unglued – and, frankly, who amongst us could sail blithely through life carrying such a history of what came before?
I greatly admired this character for her strengths and weaknesses, which Degani kept going like a balancing act. Impressive. In real life we spend our time shoring up one thing while taking down another, which this author did quite skillfully on the page.
The glamorous Virginia Gifford, the dead mother, supplies the bedrock for this novel. It is around Virgina that all conflict, mystery and intrigue merge. Degani knows how to keep the tension up, and the book – structured in short, flash-fiction chapters – also helps keep us on the edge of our chair.
It’s difficult to review a book that has so much mystery and intrigue in the plot without creating spoiler alerts. So I won’t add much more than this: What Came Before opens around another death. Death being almost a karmic event for Abbie. Her marriage is also dead. Her children have left the nest to inhabit other nests (for a mother this can be a form of death). Degani writes characters and settings that leap their realities off the page. I was impressed by how she was able to show growth and change in all her characters as the story moves along. I’ve heard this type of comment attributed to the work of Wallace Stegner. Degani, too, has that down pat.
This book grips hard right to its ending. The characters are still in my mind, all of them. A most highly recommended novel.
Susan Tepper is the author of four published books of fiction and a chapbook of poetry. Her current title, The Merrill Diaries, (Pure Slush Books, 2013) is a novel in stories. Tepper has been nominated 9 times for the Pushcart, and one time for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. She is also a named-finalist in story/South Million Writers Award for 2014. FIZZ, her reading series at KGB Bar in NYC, has been sporadically ongoing for six or seven years now. Tepper writes the author/books Interview series UNCOV/rd at Flash Fiction Chronicles. You can find her online at susantepper.com.