Sara Sligar, Take Me Apart

Archival obsession meets the #MeToo movement in this thoughtful debut. The novel follows an ex-journalist, Kate Aitken, as she creates an archive from the work of a famous photographer, Miranda Brand, who died in Callinas, California in mysterious circumstances.

Kate’s own path to this work also unfolds in mysterious circumstances. We learn that she is fired from her job in New York after filing harassment charges against her assaultive boss, but other aspects of her past, including her mental health breakdown, are revealed slowly, as she grows closer to Theo, her new boss and Miranda’s son. The narrative alternates between a close third-person point of view that focuses on Kate, and first-person excerpts from Miranda’s diary. Gradually, Kate becomes obsessed with the puzzling circumstances of Miranda’s death, and she neglects the management of her bipolar disorder. All this comes to a height as she begins to suspect her lover, Theo, of murdering his own mother. 

I love a book that can blend genre elements like mystery and suspense with more academic or aesthetic musings on art. Sligar’s writing is accessible and compelling, and she tackles important issues like mental health, sexual violence, abuse, and gaslighting. I thought the passages about Kate’s deteriorating mental health were especially well handled. We learn that her manic episodes go undetected for a while in New York because “her social circle prized erratic behavior” (264). That resonated with me as an academic, because my profession, like others I’m sure, similarly values obsessive work, not prioritizing one’s well-being, etc. 

I was a bit surprised that some of the Goodreads reviews for this novel strongly preferred the Miranda chapters to the Kate ones. I enjoyed the Miranda chapters but feel it can be challenging to depict the figure of the tormented, talented artist in fresh ways. That said, Sligar does upend this Romantic trope by making her artist a woman, and the depiction of the abuse she faces is heartrending. The themes of isolation and male tyranny, and the trope of the found manuscript, give the Miranda passages a bit of a contemporary Gothic flair. The rich strands in this novel are irreducible to any single genre or mode, but the book might have special appeal to fans of literary suspense and stories about mental health and feminism. I’m excited to see what Sligar publishes next.  

By the way, I learned about this book from the newsletter by the awesome folks over at Mystery Lover’s Bookstore in Oakmont, PA! 

Mary Kay McBrayer, America’s First Female Serial Killer

America’s first female serial killer was a poor Irish nurse named Honora Kelley, later known as Jane Toppan. She poisoned at least thirty-one victims in Victorian-era Boston. 

If that comes as a surprise to you, you’re in good company. As Mary Kay McBrayer writes, notorious murderers like Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden have been studied in great detail, but Toppan remains relatively unknown, in part because she was poor and Irish, a hardworking and unvalued laborer who her patients and bosses overlooked. “The fact that someone so unimportant and unwanted could commit so many murders without being caught was, basically, embarrassing,” McBrayer writes (14). 

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