Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Wednesday, March 23, 2016: Maximum Shelf: All Is Not Forgotten

St. Martin's Press: All is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker

St. Martin's Press: All is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker St. Martin's Press: All is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker

All Is Not Forgotten

by Wendy Walker

All Is Not Forgotten has been compared to Defending Jacob and Reconstructing Amelia, among other psychological thrillers, and the comparisons are apt. Like those books before it, All Is Not Forgotten is a novel of psychological suspense that will force readers to question what they think they know--about what they've read and the world they live in.

Set in Fairview, Conn. (a small, affluent town complete with country club and BMW-lined streets), Wendy Walker's story is, on its surface, about a teenager named Jenny Kramer who is brutally attacked at a local party. Following her rape, the Kramers opt to ease their daughter's pain by approving a controversial medical procedure designed to erase Jenny's memories of the attack. "They say it is a miracle treatment--to have the most horrible trauma erased from your mind." And the miracle treatment works--while Jenny is informed of the overall facts of her case, she recalls nothing of it herself.

In the months that follow, the consequences of this decision become more and more apparent to everyone. The police are left with no leads and little hope of identifying, and thereby finding, Jenny's attacker. She cannot remember the event specifically, and is left haunted by her past and unable to return to her former happy teenage self. Jenny's father, Tom, becomes obsessed with finding her attacker, while his wife, Charlotte, prefers to pretend that nothing out of the ordinary has happened.

All Is Not Forgotten offers readers a well-imagined and very human look at the lasting impact of tragedy--on the individual at the psychological level, and on families and communities. As the police fail to turn up suspects in Jenny's case, the idyllic town of Fairview becomes a place of secrecy and whispers. As Tom and Charlotte take different and incompatible approaches to handling their daughter's trauma, cracks in what appeared to be a happy, stable marriage begin to appear. And as Jenny works with her psychiatrist to cope with her emotional memory of the attack--divorced from any factual recollection of events by the treatment she received--the whole family must come to terms with the ramifications of her altered memory.

All of this drives at big questions about decisions and their consequences. Most specifically, these are tied into Jenny's treatment. Given the choice between justice and forgetting, which would you choose? And could you live with the consequences of that decision?

Walker also touches on more mundane decisions, the type we make every day, and how those impact our lives: how we handle a particular parenting situation, how we interact with our loved ones, how far we might go to protect ourselves and our families. And what it is that makes us regret the decisions we've made:

"We are all just walking slowly to our graves, trying not to think about it, trying to find meaning, to pass the time pleasantly," writes Walker. "It can be a good thing, to remember that there is very little that truly matters. A bad grade. A dumb politician. A social slight. Unfortunately, there are things that do matter. Things that can ruin what little time we have here. Things that cannot be done over or remedied. These are the things that we regret."

All Is Not Forgotten weaves together many storylines--but in Walker's hands, the novel never feels confusing or overwhelming. Instead, it reads like a conversation. The thread of the story may jump back in time, or switch to give detail on another character or event, but only in ways that serve to advance the overall trajectory of the plot. Small asides that acknowledge the reader's place in the story help it feel more grounded along the way, serving as reminders of what story is being told and, as it is revealed, who is telling it--and why.

"Empathy is defined this way: 'the ability to share and understand the feelings of another.' ...[we] tell our stories, sometimes in meticulous detail, watch the expressions in others as they take in the words. We do this so we are not alone as we walk slowly toward our death. Empathy is at the core of our humanity. Life is pain without it."

The characters that occupy the pages of All Is Not Forgotten are flawed and imperfect in their humanity, and all the more engaging because of it. They experience hardships and pain and try their best to make their way through both. Witnessing the ways they tell their stories to each other in the midst of all of this--and the way that Wendy Walker tells their stories to us as readers--cements Walker not only as an expert storyteller, but All Is Not Forgotten as an excellent novel of psychological suspense. --Kerry McHugh

St. Martin's Press, $26.99, hardcover, 9781250097910, July 12, 2016

St. Martin's Press: All is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker

Wendy Walker: Manipulating Memory

photo: Bill Miles

Wendy Walker is a former commercial litigator who now works as a consulting lawyer in Connecticut. She previously wrote Four Wives and Social Lives, and edited several volumes of the Chicken Soup series. Her first psychological thriller, All Is Not Forgotten, tells the story of a teenage girl who is brutally attacked at a party--and then receives a cutting-edge therapy to make her forget the attack.

On its surface, All is Not Forgotten is a thriller about a girl who is violently assaulted in a small town--but there is so much more to it than that. How would you explain the book?

In my mind, what it's really about is the incredible new technology and science that we now have around memory and memory reconsolidation and all the things that can be done to manipulate memory.

I didn't come up with the concept of having a teenage girl violently assaulted and then build the plot around that. It started with these new discoveries in memory science, which I had read an article about a while back. They'd just had this amazing discovery about where memories are stored, and the article that I read was really about their belief that they could use that discovery to treat PTSD.

Jenny has this memory treatment in the book, allowing her to forget her attack in the woods. But your author note mentions that such treatment is not yet developed.

One of the things that was so fascinating in the article I read was their mention of how they could expand the use of this to victims of civilian crimes. I just thought that would make an incredible plot. Can you imagine if you had to choose between seeking justice and forgetting?

The other question that's raised in the book around this science is what happens when you disconnect an emotional reaction from a factual memory, which is a lot of what this therapy is trying to do. There are many therapists who believe that the emotional memory doesn't go away; there's a visceral response that lives within you, disengaged from a factual memory, floating around and looking for a home.

There's a lot of psychiatry packed in this book, especially in parsing the effects of this therapy on Jenny. Did you study psychology or psychiatry?

I never studied psychology or anything like that, but I am a big believer in psychotherapy and understanding people's actions on a more scientific basis and addressing them from that perspective. People have different levels of comfort and faith in psychotherapy, but I have found it tremendously useful in parenting, and in my work as an attorney.

When I went back to practicing law about five years ago, I went into family law, and there's a lot of psychology involved in that. You're dealing with kids, divorce, difficult subjects. It's very emotional, and people are not always motivated by the normal things you see in a lawsuit (like money or control). A lot of times the motivations are more emotional. So the training and experience from that definitely gave me a lot of useful material for the book--especially in the marriage of Jenny's parents, Tom and Charlotte.

At one point, the narrator claims that no one is ever 100% honest with other people.

Throughout the book, I try to be very honest about relationships and people and the ghosts of our past that haunt all of us. So for Tom and Charlotte, for example, these issues are really part of the dynamic of why they found each other. She is this strong person and he has an anemic ego. Their relationship brings to light the fact that everyone has these issues. And we're not always honest with ourselves or with each other about them.

Do you expect readers to take sides in the story? With one character or another, or one understanding of the situation versus another?

I have found that a lot of readers do. It has been really interesting to see the reactions that people have to all of the characters, including the narrator. Some people love Charlotte, some people really hate Charlotte. It's fascinating to me how people have such strong reactions to the same character. We all bring our personal experiences to each book that we read.

This was your first thriller, but not your first novel. What was different about writing in this genre?

I had always wanted to write suspense, and I actually thought that I would when I first started thinking about writing. But I had this one women's fiction story in my head that I wrote and got published, so I became a women's fiction author. Then my agent really encouraged me to switch fully to this genre and focus on psychological thrillers, because my other two books were very heavy on psychological drama, sort of a hybrid between women's fiction and suspense.

By writing a first person narrator in All is Not Forgotten, I could tell the story in a nonlinear way. The structure of the book reads like sitting down and having a really long conversation with someone that you haven't seen for a while. The digressions in time give context to new stories. So the characters' backstories are told in pieces as they become thematically relevant to the current story. It's not a straightforward linear progression of the plot. Being able to write that way was really, really fun.

The scenes in which Jenny is attacked are stark and violent. Were those as hard to write as they were to read?

I've had a few readers say that those scenes were hard to read. When I was writing them, I was very much in the head of the narrator, who is trying to be detached and factual in telling you this information. So when I was writing it, I focused on what words I thought the narrator would choose to relay the events that occurred, so that the voice would remain authentic. I tried not to be influenced by anything else.

Some readers will cringe and have a tough time with those scenes, and others will not, and I hoped to strike that balance. That's the case for any medium dealing with a violent crime, whether it is a book, a movie or a TV show; you're trying to create a balance, but you will inevitably have people who will struggle with it and those who can view it without being too affected.

What's it like to know your book is in production with Reese Witherspoon?

This whole experience, including that piece of it, is very surreal to me. My everyday life is so unchanged. My kids are of course excited about the movie, but then the next sentence out of their mouths is "What's for dinner?" or "Where are my socks?" It's surreal. It's thrilling.

I have such profound respect for Reese and her production partner Bruna Papandrea. They are amazing women. They're very smart about what they do, looking for stories about real women. So to say that it was satisfying for them to get Charlotte the way I wrote her? That was one of the most satisfying professional moments I've had as a writer. So yes, it is completely surreal and wonderful to me that something I wrote in my pajamas in a cluttered office that I share with my son is in such incredibly talented hands. --Kerry McHugh

The audio version of All Is Not Forgotten was recorded by Dylan Baker and is available from Macmillan Audio; listen to an excerpt here.

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