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Myra McILvain
Meredith Haggerty plans for years to escape from her abusive husband if she can make it appear that she died and allow him to collect from large insurance policies. Her chance comes when she survives the fall of the North Tower on 9/11. As the bus propels her toward a new life in Mexico, she invents an identify––Shannon Staples, English teacher––for her seatmate, Father Jacques Richelieu. Although he wears a collar, he doesn’t fit her image of a priest, especially after he says that he’s a physician and his patients call him Father Rich. A linguist in her former life, Meredith adds another layer of deception when she agrees to teach English as a Second Language at the community center where Father Rich operates a medical clinic. The staff at the enclave edging the Rio Grande welcomes her, and Hispanic mothers and children respond to her classes. She feels content in the secure refuge, until she’s robbed and fears of being detected keep her from reporting the theft. When Jeff McDade, a border patrol agent, comes looking for drug smugglers, it soon becomes clear he is attracted to Meredith. Tensions mount as she dreads McDade’s friendly inquiries and struggles with her feelings for Father Rich that she knows are impossible. Meredith is riddled with guilt over maintaining her false identity as people she loves admit their deceptions. When Father Rich leaves the priesthood, she longs for him to see her as more than a friend. Jeff McDade investigates Meredith and challenges her identity. She is forced to tell Rich she is married and has committed life insurance fraud. Determined to get her life straight, she tries to locate her husband to ask for a divorce, only to discover that he stalks the Trade Center construction site in his wheelchair. He tells anyone who will listen that his wife is not dead. He expects her to return. When he sees her standing before the viewing wall reading the names of the dead, he propels his wheelchair toward her, attacking her with his metal crutch. As she flees across traffic, she hears the crash of his wheelchair being hit by a bus. When Meredith gets out of the hospital, she and Rich discover the hovel where her husband lived. He survived off the money from the sale of their condo. Plotting for the day she returned, he refused the World Trade Center survivor’s benefits and the insurance claim. Freed from serious legal troubles, Meredith and Rich plan their return to the Rio Grande Valley.
In McIlvain’s lively but uneven novel, corporate executive Meredith Haggerty escapes her brutal husband, Harvey, by hiding in the chaos following the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. She flees her office with only her ever-present satchel as the building collapses, faking her death. She’s suffused with guilt over driving drunk and getting in a crash that left Harvey partially paralyzed, but she feels she’s paid her dues by enduring his abuse in the decade since. As she rides a bus to Mexico, fellow passenger Father Jacques “Rich” Richelieu, a priest and medical doctor, recognizes a woman in need of help. Rich invites her to stay at his community center in Brownsville, Tex. Once she’s settled, her stash of cash is stolen and she must rely on meager earnings and the kindness of her new community, all while living in fear of exposure.

McIlvain (Stein House) vividly depicts Meredith’s escape against the backdrop of the traumatic events of 9/11, and the scenes of Rich and other knowledgeable people recognizing the clear signs of domestic abuse are well-written and sensitively approached. As Meredith navigates a new life in a place filled with poverty, violence, and sorrow, McIlvain keeps the book’s tone from descending too far into the dark, adding a touch of romance as well as some melodrama in a subplot involving a young Mexican boy.

The writing falters in the last quarter as the author winds up to the denouement, tying up loose ends in brisk fashion. Life-altering decisions for Father Rich and Meredith seem too convenient and neat. Even with these missteps, this novel is powerful and compelling. The mutual misery of Meredith and Harvey’s marriage is capably portrayed, and Meredith is a complicated and appealing heroine. Readers will breathlessly turn pages to the end.

Takeaway: Readers intrigued by heroines on the run and possibly in need of redemption will love this vivid novel of a woman using the events of 9/11 to escape her abusive husband.

Great for fans of Don Winslow’s The Border, Barbara O’Neal.

Production grades
Cover: B-
Design and typography: -
Illustrations: -
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: B-