For some people, the idea of unconditional love is fraught with conditions, especially when a relationship has been built on lies and secrets as the superb “Watch Me Disappear” shows.

Janelle Brown’s third family drama delivers an incisive and emotional view of how grief and recovery from loss can seep into each aspect of a person’s life. These feelings are exacerbated as Jonathan Flanagan realizes he may never have truly known his wife, Billie, who disappeared a year earlier during a solo hiking trip along the Pacific Crest Trail in California’s Desolation Wilderness. Billie’s body was never found, but there was evidence that she may have drowned. Jonathan’s love for Billie was absolute. But as he works on a memoir about their life, he begins to realize that Billie’s love had limits.

As Jonathan grieves and drinks in their Berkeley, California, home, their teenage daughter, Olive, believes her mother could still be alive, especially when she has visions of Billie. Olive is convinced these apparitions are telling her to continue to search for her mother. As Jonathan wrestles with Olive’s visions, he also grapples with the possibility that his daughter may be right. How else to explain missing money from the couple’s bank accounts, or Billie’s frequent long weekend absences, supposedly hiking or camping by herself or with a friend? If Billie is alive, what does that say about their marriage, or her devotion to their daughter?

Brown paints a complete picture of a family struggling with the emotional and practical following a death. At 15, Olive needs her mother more than ever as she goes through life changes. Without Billie, the household is in shambles, as neither Jonathan nor Olive has the energy to clean, buy food or do laundry. Jonathan faces mounting bills, and because Billie’s body was never found, a death certificate cannot be issued, so he cannot collect the large insurance benefit. Shortly before her death, Jonathan had left his high-paying job as a tech journalist in San Francisco to write a book, a feat that now seems insurmountable.

“Watch Me Disappear” skillfully moves from the present day to the first meeting of Jonathan and Billie, and deftly alternates between first- and third-person voices. Brown imbues realism in each character, whose complicated emotions fuel the suspenseful story.

‘Watch Me


by Janelle Brown

(Spiegel & Grau)



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