So imagine my secondhand distress while reading “The Last Thing He Told Me” by Laura Dave, a suspense novel about a wife who insists on digging around in her husband’s mysterious past. Foolishly, I hoped her misstep might still lead to a happy ending, so I read feverishly into the night — only to be walloped with disappointment.
Here’s a recap for those who also sped through the novel: Hannah and Owen are newlyweds who live on a houseboat in Sausalito, Calif., with Owen’s teenage daughter, Bailey, who’s not exactly fond of her stepmother. One night, a young girl shows up at the house with a note from Owen: “Protect her,” it says, obviously referring to Bailey. Hours later, when news breaks that his company is being investigated for securities fraud, it becomes clear that he’s fled.
Like any new wife whose charming husband has vanished into thin air at an inopportune moment, Hannah assumes he’s innocent. She surmises that if Owen had simply gotten caught up in something bad at work, he would face the consequences, unwilling to leave his daughter. “He left the way he did to try and save her,” Hannah theorizes. “From something or someone.”
At this point, I would probably lay low, maybe buy a burner phone (and a box of wine) and wait for Owen to call. But Hannah and Bailey decide to play detective. They uncover news that will surprise exactly no one: Owen is not who he said he was; his name isn’t even Owen.
I can think of few examples in which the beloved spouse who lied about his entire past is actually innocent, so I wondered if Owen was perhaps an ax murderer disguised as a loving father. If only: That would make his tragic fate easier to swallow.
It turns out that when Bailey was a baby, her mother was killed in a hit-and-run accident. Owen believed it was an act of revenge against his father-in-law, an attorney who defended members of a large crime syndicate. So he became the lead witness in a case that landed his dead wife’s father and 18 other members of the organization in jail, and then took his daughter and ran, changing their names and inventing an entire history for himself. Hence why he had to run when his company made the news: He knew his photo would be released, putting Bailey’s location and safety at risk.
As Hannah unravels Owen’s past, a U.S. marshal tries to persuade her and Bailey to enter witness protection, assuming new identities. When Owen feels it’s safe to return, the marshal promises, he’ll join them. Hannah doesn’t buy it. The marshal seems nice enough, and he claims to have Owen’s best interests in mind. But as she tells him: “If Owen wanted me to sit still and let you run this, he would have said so.” And then there’s the niggling concern that entering WITSEC doesn’t guarantee a happy ending. “If you moved us, what are the chances they find us anyway? . . . Bottom line is that you can’t guarantee that won’t happen.”
Instead, Hannah decides to host a meet-and-greet with Owen’s former father-in-law — the very guy her husband is running from! — and gets him to agree that, as long as Owen doesn’t resurface, Bailey will remain safe, never hunted by the crime group.
“By doing it this way, Bailey gets to stay Bailey,” Hannah reasons. “I’m giving up Owen. I’m giving up the chance that on the other side of all this, if there is another side, things will get to go back to Owen and me, together. That it will ever go back to the two of us.”
What blasphemy is this?
How can Hannah give up her husband, and any chance of being with him again? How can Bailey be expected to live the rest of her life without her father, knowing he’s somewhere out there, a shadow she’s unable to speak to or yell at or hug? How can Owen, poor Owen, possibly continue on without his family? It’s unjust!
So maybe the problem is me and my inability to accept anything other than a happy ending and love that conquers all. But this is an entirely unsatisfying outcome, not to mention a real lack of inventiveness. Hello: cosmetic surgery? Fingerprint-altering surgery? Sneaking out of the country together? It’s 2021; anyone with the Internet can tell you there are ways to avoid being found.
Yet in the novel’s epilogue — five or eight or 10 years later — Owen walks up to Hannah in an exhibition hall and whispers that he still loves her. They don’t meet eyes or brush hands before he’s swept away in the crowd, and for some reason, Hannah doesn’t chase after him or scream “fire!” so that they might escape together in the chaos.
Instead, minutes later, she says hello to Bailey, who’s just showed up to meet her for dinner. “Hi mom,” Bailey says (a wildly unlikely greeting, no matter how close they’ve become). This is presumably the part where we’re supposed to be happy that these two have formed a loving mother-daughter bond. And sure, that’s nice, good for them. But Bailey already had a parent! Why would we root for the stepmother and not the still-out-there father?
Dave’s novel is being adapted as an Apple series, with Julia Roberts set to star and executive produce. The optimist in me is holding out hope that things play out differently on TV: Maybe Hannah and Owen and Bailey will find a way to be together again in Tuvalu or something.
Really, can someone just end up better off than they started?
Oh, wait, my mistake: One should never ask a question if they’re not sure they want to hear the answer.
Angela Haupt is a freelance writer and health editor.