At the center of Emily Ross’s YA thriller Half in Love with Death is Caroline. Caroline is the dreamy middle child, younger sister of brash Jess. And last night Jess snuck out the bedroom window. She has not come home.
The perfect choice for narrator, Caroline is the only character with access to everyone—their parents, Jess’s friends, and to Jess herself. And she’s a sweetie. New in town with few friends, she longs for white go-go boots, for the cool fashion of Courrèges and for Tony, Jess’s boyfriend, to hold her hand.
The book is set in Tucson, Arizona the year the Beatles broke open America. A naïf, Caroline’s innocence mirrors America’s circa 1964. Post Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11, Gulf Wars I and II, Black Lives Matter, San Bernadino, Paris and Brussels, it is hard to imagine such a trusting fifteen-year-old today. And that’s part of the allure of Half in Love with Death, to visit (or re-visit) that time in our history.
Caroline believes she is partially to blame for her sister’s disappearance and she is disgusted with her parents, who argue and drink but fail to find Jess. So Caroline investigates. She teams up with charismatic Tony, Jess’s boyfriend, and asks questions of him and his friends. The answers she hears are hazy, confusing, even contradictory.
Did Jess really go off to California in a red car with a strange boy? When kids said they saw her in the car, was she screaming or laughing? Is she really living in Redondo Beach? Perhaps because Caroline is “drawn to things that were not what they appeared to be” she willingly suspends disbelief and is drawn deeper and deeper into danger.
Ross grew up in the Sixties and she based her novel on a real serial killer from that era, “The Pied Piper of Tucson.” (Joyce Carol Oates based her story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” on the same serial killer.) In Ross’s post for Dead Darlings, How the Pied Piper of Tucson Led Me to My Story, she writes that “[a]s an adult…I wondered if the feelings that drew Tucson teens to [the murderer] weren’t all that different from those ‘magical’ feelings of connection that drew me to my friends in the Sixties.”
Thankfully for readers, Ross stepped through that “small dark door” and wrote this haunting, suspenseful tale that won’t let you stop reading until the very last sentence.