Plot of ‘What Has Become of You’ winds & loops
“What Has Become of You” (Dutton), by Jan Elizabeth Watson
Toward the end of Jan Elizabeth Watson’s “What Has Become of You,” protagonist Vera Lundy is called “a smart woman who does stupid things.” It’s an apt description for someone teaching English to 10th-graders while being unable, over 20 years later, to shake off her own unpleasant high school memories. (Without getting into any spoilers, let me say that “unpleasant” is an understatement.)
Vera is also writing a true crime book about a serial killer from her hometown, work that occasionally seeps into her classroom discussions on “The Catcher in the Rye” — yet another questionable decision, one rooted in Vera’s desire to be seen as an authority, a trait she feels she holds tenuously.
One night, stumbling home from a bar, Vera finds the body of one of her students, a girl who had previously objected to Vera’s remarks in class about killers. Again, her need to be viewed as clever and useful leads her to try and solve the case herself. This does not go well.
The mystery fosters a problematic intimacy with another student, Jensen Willard, a talented writer whose journal entries Vera consumes greedily, seeing in Jensen a version of herself at age 15, isolated and awkward. Jensen’s writing reveals a morbidity that could be her attempt at fulfilling an assignment criterion of relating “Catcher” to her own life. Then Jensen disappears, leading Vera on a bread crumb trail for answers.
Vera is a tricky character, not entirely likable, but arguably identifiable to many of us, and Watson treads that line with grace and precision. There are several reasons to recommend this book, not the least of which is the intricacy of the plot, which doesn’t twist so much as it winds and loops in ways that even if one may predict where it will go, the how is still surprising.