What Has Become of You by Jan Elizabeth Watson

What Has Become of You by Jan Elizabeth Watson, Dutton/Penguin

This story was about Vera Lundy, a substitute teacher/crime novelist, who discovers a budding J.D. Salinger in one of her English students, Jensen Willard, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks attending Vera’s upper crust Wallace School on scholarship. Backstory-wise, Vera was personally (kind of) involved with the murder of a girl when Vera was in high school, and Vera is now researching the killer of that high school girl and the killer of another grade school girl where Vera lives currently. Multiple dead girls and perps to keep track of, which gets more complicated when Vera, on the way home from a drunken one night stand, finds one of her students strangled to death in a park near Vera’s home. And then Jensen Willard goes missing, after Vera spends time drinking with Jensen in a hotel room. Is Vera the killer?

The police briefly entertain the possibility, so Vera sets out to clear her name by solving the disappearance of Jensen Willard. She never solves the disappearance, and the two most recent murders are pinned on an acquaintance of Jensen’s who pops up in the last twenty pages to confess and say that Jensen goaded him into the crimes. So Vera is off the hook, and Jensen is guilty of something, though I was never sure what the charge would be.

It was complicated, and muddled enough to keep me from proving it was illogical. I never knew if any of the perps had anything to do with any of the murders. Any one of them could have been lying, a fact which Vera acknowledged. I like ambiguity, even in a mystery, if I feel for how the lack of resolution affects the main character.

That was my problem with Become. I wound up with no sympathy for Vera. She was an adrift substitute teacher/crime novelist with no concept of teacher-student boundaries. Vera asked for trouble, and when she got out of trouble I felt sorrier for society than for her. Events only changed Vera’s life in that she ended up a Queens clothing store clerk instead of a substitute teacher—a horizontal, if not upward, career move.

Become had a nice element of Vera’s obsession with Jensen, as Jensen presented herself through class journals. The girl from the wrong side of the tracks might have been writing brilliant fiction or a killer’s memoir. That element kept me reading in hope of a satisfying twist one way or the other, which, unfortunately, never came. The predictable final letter from Jensen to Vera resolved nothing.

The fact I finished Become and devoted this many words to a review proves it wasn’t awful, but Watson missed the mark making Vera the main character instead of Jensen. Close call, but Become becomes part of this week’s recycling bin.

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