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I’m always a sucker for a well-written survival story. The inherent drama of a “man vs. nature” narrative inevitably raises the stakes, and as a longtime hiker and backpacker, I like to imagine (from the safety of my sofa) how I would react in similar situations. In her new thriller, FREEFALL, Jessica Barry alternates a wilderness survival story with a story about a grieving mother in search of answers --- and she introduces a separate threat who may put both mother and daughter in danger.

Maggie is still mourning her husband’s death from cancer two years earlier when she gets the knock on the door that no one wants to receive. Jim is not only her longtime friend, he’s also the chief of police in their small Maine town --- and he has the unfortunate job of informing Maggie that her adult daughter Allison has been involved in a fiery crash of a private plane in the Colorado Rockies. From what the investigators can tell, there are likely no survivors.

"FREEFALL certainly satisfied my hankering for a survival novel --- and it will also keep many a thriller fan up late at night, too."

Maggie is understandably wracked with grief and confusion, especially when she reveals that she has fallen completely out of touch with Allison since the death of Allison’s father. The Allison depicted in the news stories and photos seems like a completely different young woman from the one Maggie once knew and still loves. She was apparently engaged to the plane’s pilot, a wealthy CEO, and a man Maggie had no idea even existed. Who did Allison become? Maggie, a retired reference librarian, even heads to San Diego to try to meet with Allison’s friends and her fiancé's family, but the trip raises more questions than answers. All along, however, Maggie can’t shake the feeling that Allison is still alive.

Meanwhile, unknown to Maggie, Allison has in fact survived the crash and is fleeing through the Colorado Rockies on foot. She’s injured, dehydrated and hungry. But as she struggles through vast stretches of forest and mountains while recalling the series of events that brought her there, it becomes increasingly clear that she’s scared not only of the dangers posed by the wilderness but also of a potential human pursuer.

Allison’s struggles for survival, her memories of her recent life, and her mother’s search for answers alternate as the tension ratchets up and the stakes mount for both women. Maggie must come to terms with the role she played in her estrangement from her daughter and also with the fact that Allison’s life is far more complicated and secretive than she ever knew.

Barry’s novel effectively utilizes this emotional investment, along with well-paced action, shifting perspectives and rising tension, to pique readers’ curiosity about what happened to Allison before --- and what will happen next. Few readers will anticipate the book’s surprise twist (though more than a few may quibble with how it plays out), and the big conspiracy that underpins the plot is all too plausible. Despite the emotional potential of the narrative, Maggie and Allison at times seem detached from the reader’s emotional response, too driven by their own purpose and drive to give the reader something more visceral to latch on to.

That said, FREEFALL certainly satisfied my hankering for a survival novel --- and it also will keep many a thriller fan up late at night, too.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 11, 2019

by Jessica Barry

  • Publication Date: January 8, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0062874837
  • ISBN-13: 9780062874832