Falling within the nearly-not-crime-fiction-at-all genre, THE LAST ACT OF HATTIE HOFFMAN (aka EVERYTHING YOU WANT ME TO BE) explores the nature of identity. How do we learn who we are? Can we choose who to be? Can we truly have multiple identities or is there always a true self? That it does this against the backdrop of the investigation into a young girl’s murder in a Minnesota farming community is almost (but not quite) incidental.
The story unfolds in two time frames, roughly a year apart, and from three different perspectives. We learn of the book’s key dramatic event – Hattie Hoffman’s murder – early on then one thread of the novel flashes back through the months that led up to it, while the other moves forward, showing how hard it is for the people who loved her to discover Hattie’s secrets. That she was not the Hattie they thought they knew. This kind of complicated narrative structure is becoming more popular but not every author carries it off with as much skill as Mejia has done with only her second full-length novel. The structure served a real purpose here; providing most of the tension and allowing the key character developments to be revealed more precisely than a standard narrative might have done.
Henrietta, Hattie to her friends, Hoffman is 17 at the earliest stages of the book and has not long turned 18 when she is murdered. She yearns to live in New York. Possibly as an actress but that’s not as important as just being there: geographically and psychologically far removed from Pine Valley, Minnesota. Hattie is already an actress though, both on stage and off it, easily portraying the girl other people need or want her to be. A doting daughter, a BFF, a footballer’s girlfriend…Is she being manipulative or just trying on skins to find the right one? And either way, do her actions warrant her being stabbed to death?
Del Goodman is Pine Valley’s Sheriff. We don’t know exactly how old he is but he must be pushing retirement age as he served in Vietnam and these events are taking place across 2007-2008. He feels more than usually invested in the case because Hattie’s father, Bud, is his best friend. He has watched Hattie grow up and, without children of his own, he feels close to Hattie and also feels he knows her. Or at least a version of her.
Peter Lund is the high school English teacher. He’s moved to Pine Valley from Minneapolis because his wife needed to move home to look after her ailing mother. He is stifled by small town life and the fact he seems unable to fit in. His interests are shared by few people there – not even his wife as she focuses on caring for her mother and the demanding chicken farm – and their interests are completely foreign to him. Peter’s view of himself as a person is shown to be out of sync with the person he actually is.
THE LAST ACT OF HATTIE HOFFMAN is an unsettling, surprising, compelling and ultimately very satisfying read. The story is a ripper yarn and the characters much more layered than the blurb would have you believe. For the record I prefer ‘our’ title than the US one because it turns out to have several real meanings and seems to more thoroughly encapsulate this excellent story but whatever it’s called where you live I highly recommend this book.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Quercus, 2017
Length 337 pages
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy I bought it