Review: Descent

January 6, 2015 Algonquin, book review, family, literary suspense, mystery 6


Written By:  Tim Johnston

Published By:  Algonquin Books, January 6, 2015

Length:  384 pages

Source:  e galley via Net Galley with permission from publisher






Descent, the story of a family undone by the disappearance of a daughter who went out for a morning run and didn’t come back, is stunning in its emotional impact–a compulsively readable page-turner with a strong literary sensibility.

The girl’s vanishing–on a sunny, late-summer vacation morning–all the more devastating for its mystery, is the beginning of the family’s harrowing journey down increasingly divergent and solitary paths, until all that continues to bind them to each other are the questions they can never bring themselves to ask: At what point does a family stop searching? At what point does a girl stop fighting for her life?

Johnston captures every emotion, every terrifying thought, every moment of loneliness, from the perspectives of everyone in the family—as each in his or her own way assumes responsibility for their collective loss. And in the father we see the last flicker of hope as he pursues every angle and refuses to give up in his belief that his daughter is still alive. Ultimately he finds an answer, in a climax that is stunning in both its execution and its resolution.

This combination of a great story and beautiful writing brings to mind the works of Tim Gautreaux, Dennis Lehane, and Russell Banks.(publisher)

My Thoughts: This book starts off as the Cortland family begins their vacation in Colorado.  Grant and his wife Angela, daughter Caitlin on her last trip before starting college with a track scholarship, and younger brother Sean, or Dudley as Caitlin refers to him. Caitlin and Sean leave early for a mountain run, he treks behind her bicycling and maps in hand.  They take roads not shown on the map and discover quiet places where others have gone before them.  Then there is an accident, Sean his hit by a vehicle, Caitlin is distraught.  She’s afraid to stay with him, not trusting the man who hit him to get help, and aware that they’ve seen few others on the roads.  Her choice will impact not just Sean’s life, but her entire family, and many others in these peaceful Colorado mountains.

My heart raced as I read that first chapter, the most routine and innocent of actions turns ominous and a young woman disappears.

The book takes on an account of each family member’s internal and external trauma.  It jumps ahead more, showing on a little of the immediate actions.  What does a family do in long term crisis?  This family simply couldn’t move on.  Grant stays nearby in Colorado, Angela goes home to Wisconsin but her life isn’t the same.  Sean goes back and forth and drifts all over the midwest to west coast, working for money to move again, getting into some trouble here and there.

This book had it’s slow moments for me, but picked up and the last half had me racing through it.  Johnston has found a way to show each person’s struggle amidst this tragedy.  We read about how they manage, how they meet new people and develop routines to cope, and if they keep hope alive for Caitlin’s survival.

I liked this book, it held my attention and I wanted to know the end.  I know it’s receiving a lot of attention but I’m not sure I could say I loved it. The setting and the author’s description was wonderful. The mountains in all seasons were another character in the book really. They started as welcoming and became more ominous. Not all of the main characters were fully fleshed out.  Even some of the mishaps Sean had seem superfluous when looked at in the total plot of the book. The emotions are what stand out and make this book  worth reading, and you should decide for yourself.

Thank you to Algonquin Books for allowing me early access to this book.

6 Responses to “Review: Descent”

  1. Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness)

    I thought this one was really slow in parts too… overall, I wasn’t much of a fan. I just didn’t love the writing style, I guess, or think it fit well with the book. But I’m glad to see others are enjoying it more!

  2. whatsheread

    I like your assessment and think that you make some fair points. There are characters who are introduced and have fairly decent parts but are not well-defined. I thought there were too many characters at times and would have liked to know a little bit more about Angela’s struggles in Wisconsin. Still, I thought Caitlin more than made up for those deficiencies, as did the nature descriptions. Simply gorgeous.

  3. litandlife

    I am hearing good things about this one and I’m sure I’m going to have to pick it up before long.

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