By Harlan Coben
Dutton. 351 pp. $27.95
Six years after losing his one true love to another man, Jake Fisher is still haunted by memories and questions. Was it really just a whirlwind summer romance? A brief escape from the real world? Jake hardly believes that, though they had each been on retreat — literally so: Jake, on his way up the professorial ladder, finishing his political science dissertation at a writer’s retreat in Vermont, then meeting Natalie, a painter at the Creative Recharge Colony down the road. But when she suddenly married an old boyfriend, Jake had agreed to her request to “leave us alone.” And no matter what, he’s a man who sticks by his principles . . . at least until he hears that Natalie’s husband has died. With the “us” no longer there, Jake can reach out to her again, right?
That wedding in the novel’s opening is followed quickly by a funeral, where Jake hopes to reconnect with the freshly widowed Natalie. The only problem: The woman in the big black hat isn’t Natalie, and the dead man’s kids are too old to have been the offspring of a second marriage. More complications arise: When Jake calls Natalie’s sister, she doesn’t know him. On a quick trip back to Vermont, none of those familiar faces remember him. And the Creative Recharge isn’t there — never has been, according to everyone he meets.
Had he imagined the whole romance? Jake’s best friend suggests that possibility. It was a weak time for him, after all. But Jake knows better. And clues suggest that something sinister is going on. It turns out that Natalie’s so-called husband was murdered, someone seems to have followed Jake back from Vermont, and then he gets an e-mail that might just be from Natalie herself.
More than half the book passes before someone finally tells Jake, “This is bigger than you can imagine.” All I could think was, “What took that line so long?”
Harlan Coben’s readers know him as the master of this type of story: a life suddenly unraveling, the past summoned back into a swiftly shifting present, secrets peeling back to reveal more secrets. (Film fans too will recall the twisty French thriller “Tell No One,” adapted from one of Coben’s best-known novels.) With “Six Years,” the author shows once more how it’s done. What’s impressive here is how narrowly constructed the story actually is, with the plot repeatedly circling back on itself, moving ever homeward rather than further into unknown territory, and leaving nearly nothing — minor characters, seemingly incidental details, stray remarks — wasted. Sherlock Holmes famously chided Watson, “You see but you do not observe,” and the beauty of Coben’s craftsmanship here is how often he can lure us into not perceiving what’s clearly right in front of our eyes.
As a narrator, Jake is companionable enough — loose and friendly, not just conversational but downright chatty, even in the tensest of scenes (my favorite is when he’s been stalked by two groups of gunmen and pauses to reflect on how adrenaline works). His determination against all odds seems completely in character, too: His love truly will find a way.
But articulating the depth of that love is a weak point in the novel. When Jake delivers a grand soliloquy about why he can’t let Natalie go, it’s all about moments that stole his breath, living for her laugh, seeing forever in her eyes, regretting every moment he’s not with her and ultimately just needing to listen to his heart. To Coben’s credit, though, he seems to know these sentiments are cliche. Reflecting on love earlier in the book, Jake admits how corny it sounds:“Gag me with a spoon, right?”, and elsewhere he notes that falling in love “makes you start talking like a bad country song.”
Amid the furious plot twists and those dense, ever-tightening connections, artful emotional expression may not be what drives this novel. But as Jake realizes what’s been happening, “Six Years” offers poignancy alongside its urgency. The events that define you, the memories that constitute your life — what if they were all mired in confusion, built on a pivotal misunderstanding or, worse, a blatant lie? What if you were, in part, responsible for the missteps that helped send so much off-course? That last question is the subtle stunner here.
Taylor frequently reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Post.