After 40 years, Janey Woodham’s porcelain doll, the one that went missing when the 4-year-old disappeared one sunny afternoon from her front yard, turns up in the hands of a stranger. And with that one enticing clue, best-selling author Hallie Ephron’s new mystery, “You’ll Never Know, Dear,” is off and running.
Ephron, a Boston area resident and the Boston Globe’s “On Crime” columnist for a decade, is one of four famous writer daughters (with Nora, Delia, and Amy) of noted Hollywood screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron. Her books draw in some way from her own personal life experience — her previous novel, “Night Night, Sleep Tight,” harkens back to her Hollywood childhood.
Like many of her other mysteries (including “Never Tell a Lie,” “Come and Find Me,” and “There Was an Old Woman”) the story line in “You’ll Never Know, Dear” unspools with a strong psychological component and a sense of real people involved in relatable situations. In addition to a suspenseful yarn investigating Janey’s disappearance and the reappearance of her doll, the novel explores and illuminates the complex dynamics among three generations of Woodham women — Janey’s older sister Lis, their mother (known to everyone simply as Miss Sorrell), and Lis’s daughter Vanessa, a college student enmeshed in dream research. It also explores the extraordinary bonds and compromises of a long-term friendship, and the transformative power of second chances.
Set in the fictional port city of Bonsecours, S.C., “You’ll Never Know, Dear” is filled with rich detail of time and place. One can almost feel the soft heat of the Low Country, with its camellia bushes, periwinkle, and thick blanket of mosquitoes, where “[i]n a matter of weeks, the air would be heavy with the sweet scent of wisteria that would hang from the sinewy vines that draped gracefully across the front of the porch.”
From the first page, we are thrown into the world of handmade dolls, from Cherokee rag dolls to high-end Victorian dolls with “bisque heads, creamy complexions, glass eyes, Cupid’s bow mouths, and stiff wigs” to the dolls Miss Sorrell made herself, each with a meticulously sculpted and painted face to resemble a real person.
Her first dolls had been modeled on her two daughters, so the discovery of Janey’s doll “was the first thread of evidence that Janey hadn’t simply gone up in smoke.” But in rather short order, Lis and her mother nearly do go up in smoke when someone sets off a fire in Miss Sorrell’s studio, and her most valuable dolls are stolen.
The two events are clearly connected, and the young woman who turns up on their doorstep with Janey’s doll is the mystery’s best lead. She is responding to a newspaper ad Miss Sorrell runs every year on the anniversary of Janey’s disappearance offering a generous reward for the doll’s return. But the intensity of Miss Sorrell’s reaction to the doll, including some very pointed questions, spooks the young stranger. After she dashes off, the women use their best deductive skills to track her down and uncover the secrets that start to unravel the mystery.
A third of the way through “You’ll Never Know, Dear,” Ephron has introduced us to all the major players, and rather quickly, the basic direction of the story line seems fairly transparent. Marked by a notable absence of violence and danger, it’s never really nail-biting suspense. Even so, it’s quite the page-turner in its quiet way. An accessible, easy read that deftly integrates the mystery genre with women’s fiction, it’s made compelling by the depth and resonance of the relationships.
“You’ll Never Know, Dear” will be a doll-lover’s delight, delving into some of the intricacies of doll making and restoration. But even readers who don’t give a fig about collectibles may be drawn into one of the story’s most interesting and ultimately potent tangents. Vanessa’s research into ways to induce and harness lucid dreaming proves to be a catalyst for one of the main character’s recovered memories. Though Ephron made up Vanessa’s dream-catcher technology, the idea is intriguing without seeming far-fetched. Who can resist the lure of taking control of one’s nightmares? Only in our dreams . . .
YOU’LL NEVER KNOW, DEAR
By Hallie Ephron
William Morrow, 290 pp., $26.99
Karen Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.