In literature, there’s a distinction between concept and gimmick. A concept is an overarching idea or structure that makes a novel unique and memorable, while a gimmick is a cheap hook designed to get the reader’s attention.
Megan Miranda’s 2016 novel has an intriguing structure — after the opening chapters sets the scene, introduces the characters, and presents the complication, the plot then progresses two weeks in reverse, each chapter devoted to the day before its previous. It’s a concept rooted in the philosophical belief, introduced in the novel by a quote from Kierkegaard: life must be understood backwards.
This concept only works if details are presented fairly — in other words, if a character uncovers information in day eight, that character should know that information three chapters earlier in day eleven. Unfortunately, the concept doesn’t work in the novel; too many times, I couldn’t help thinking if a character knew what we later learned she already knew, her later actions would be different. In other words, the structure of “All the Missing Girls” is more a gimmick than concept.
Which is unfortunate, because it is an engaging mystery, with characters who are likable because of their flaws. Nicolette, the first-person narrator, struggles to discover the fate of two missing friends while also coming to terms with her own past. The men in her life — her current boyfriend (Everett), former lover (Tyler), and brother (Daniel) — offer their assistance, yet also provide significant obstacles to her search. The author’s metaphors can be memorable at times (“People were like Russian nesting dolls — versions stacked inside the latest edition.”), and her suspenseful scenes are true page-turners. Miranda is a talented author, and I would definitely consider reading her subsequent novels.
I just wish “All the Missing Girls” had been told in a conventional format. Unfortunately, its gimmicky structure is a distraction.