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Before She Was Helen

Review

Before She Was Helen

Beloved author Caroline B. Cooney, best known for her young adult books, like THE FACE ON THE MILK CARTON, returns to writing for adults. Set in a cozy retirement community and centered on a harmless but mysterious senior citizen, BEFORE SHE WAS HELEN is a deftly written and suspenseful novel that will surprise readers of all ages.

Clementine is a semi-retired Latin teacher who enjoys her quiet days in Sun City, a cozy retirement community where neighbors know the layouts of one another’s homes, canasta games are only a night away, and no one has to worry about their pasts --- except Clementine. Known by her neighbors as Helen, and by her family as Clementine, Clemmie has an ulterior motive for enjoying the senior community: she has a long-buried, secret past and will do anything to keep it from crossing paths with the present.

Sun City is full of quirky characters, especially when it comes to Dom, Clemmie’s crotchety and disagreeable neighbor. Though he tends to stick to himself and eschew bridge and canasta games, Dom maintains one source of connection to the community: his daily texts to Clemmie to let her know that he is doing fine. One day, he fails to check in, and she uses his spare key to make sure he has not fallen in his apartment. Beyond the usual mess and clutter (and, thankfully, the definite lack of an injured or deceased Dom), she comes upon something remarkable: a non-regulation door in his garage that leads directly into the unit between his and Clemmie’s homes. Knowing full well how easily a simple secret can hold something life-changing, she decides to venture into the unit, which is owned by a couple who rarely stays in town or engages with the rest of the community.

"Cooney manages to immerse you in the setting to the point that you practically feel like you are late for canasta as you read. Between golf cart outings, grown-up affairs and frank discussions of bathroom breaks, her senior characters leap off the page to demand your attention."

Inside, Clemmie finds an ornate and vivid glass-blown sculpture of a dragon. Finally in possession of something that might interest her young nephew, she snaps a picture and texts it to him...only to find out that it is a very valuable, very stolen piece of drug paraphernalia. When her well-meaning nephew alerts the creator of the sculpture (and potential drug dealer), Clemmie finds herself in the middle of a much bigger mystery than her neighbor’s apartment. When the pseudo-sculptor and definite drug dealer shows up on her doorstep demanding access to her neighbors’ apartments and a dead body shows up in Dom’s garage, Clemmie’s cover might be blown for good. But it’s when a cold case from her hometown is reopened and starts gaining new attention that her life really takes a dramatic turn.

Alternating between Clemmie’s past and her present, Cooney presents her readers with two shocking mysteries: a drug ring with possible connections to Clemmie’s own neighborhood, and the unsolved murder of a beloved coach from Clemmie’s high school...and the rumors that he may have taken special interest in some of his students. What makes the book so successful is the way that Cooney uses each mystery to propel the other forward without giving you all the clues up front or blowing her own cover as a suspense writer. Walking the fine line between each case, Clemmie uses her keen observation skills, her unassuming disguise as an old woman, and some very well-timed and convenient “senior moments” not only to maintain her secret identity, but to ensure that no one knows why she is running from her past.

Having been a Cooney fan for a long time, I actually went into BEFORE SHE WAS HELEN blind, with only the vaguest suspicion that I was in for a nice, cozy mystery --- after all, the novel is set in a retirement home. What I got was so much more: a timely and intriguing mystery with real-world connections, a cast of characters as colorful as they are hilarious and well-developed, and the author's signature ability to weave between timelines without missing a beat. While I initially worried that Clemmie’s age would make her unrelatable or even boring, it turns out to be a major benefit and asset to the book, as Cooney often uses Clemmie’s viewpoint as a woman to highlight the progress we have made as a society --- and the ways we are still dreadfully behind the times.

Clemmie is a terrific protagonist, but what truly makes BEFORE SHE WAS HELEN shine is the supporting cast of characters. Almost everyone has some story about a kooky retiree or a friend who works in a nursing home or retirement community, but Cooney manages to immerse you in the setting to the point that you practically feel like you are late for canasta as you read. Between golf cart outings, grown-up affairs and frank discussions of bathroom breaks, her senior characters leap off the page to demand your attention.

Because the setting and age of the characters can be deceiving, I should mention that Clemmie’s history is a bit traumatic, which may make some readers uncomfortable. Cooney does not shy away from describing the more painful moments of her past, nor does she “fade to black” on the more disturbing scenes. However, I found this to be incredibly refreshing, and I loved how it provided some gritty backbone to the less shocking present-day portions of the story.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on September 11, 2020

Before She Was Helen
by Caroline B. Cooney

  • Publication Date: September 8, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
  • ISBN-10: 1728205123
  • ISBN-13: 9781728205120