Review: Don’t Breathe a Word

Don’t Breathe a Word
Jennifer McMahon
Harper Paperbacks
$14.99, trade paperback, 464 pages
Also available as Ebook ($9.99)
Release date: June 1, 2011

A young girl disappears in the woods, leaving no real clues where she’s gone or who might have taken her. She told her brother and cousin she was going to live with the King of Fairies. It couldn’t be true, could it? Except her brother had chased after fairy bells in the woods, too.

Fifteen years later, Lisa is still missing. Her brother, Sam, hasn’t gotten over her disappearance. His girlfriend, Phoebe, has her own suspicions about fairies. When they receive a mysterious call that leads them to Lisa’s Book of Fairies, they reunite with Sam’s cousin, Evie, at a remote cabin. Evie “knows” things, including that Phoebe may be pregnant. An old woman shows up at the door, singing Lisa’s childhood songs, only to stab Evie and run off, stripping off a disguise and revealing she’s a young woman. Phoebe and Sam give chase, but the young woman tells police the couple abducted her. Back at the cabin, there’s no trace Phoebe and Sam stayed there and no sign of Evie.

Once home, Phoebe and Sam discover the Evie they met at the cabin isn’t the real Evie. They find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery of Lisa’s disappearance. Was she taken by the King of the Fairies? Or was a more sinister, all-too-human villain behind her disappearance?

The bones of a good story lie beneath Jennifer McMahon’s Don’t Breathe a Word. What starts off as a young teen’s desire to believe in something magical, to be something more than ordinary pick up a sinister undertone as the plot progresses. As McMahon writes, “What if things happened to you—special, magic things—because you’d been preparing for them? What if by believing you opened a door?”

Chapters flip between Phoebe’s investigation into Lisa’s disappearance and 15 years earlier to Lisa’s attempts to contact the Fairy King. The chapters from Lisa’s point of view are stronger. McMahon does well when writing about the transition to being an adult while wanting to cling to parts of childhood like believing in fairies. Her teen and preteen characters are believable, making mistakes and assumptions that real teens would. The plot in these chapters is a bit muddy at times, but that can be excused by gaps in Lisa’s knowledge of her family’s history.

The Phoebe chapters are more problematic, with some inconsistencies in how characters act and one too many plot twists and reverses. A hint of deus ex machina in the form of a late-introduced character to provide answers doesn’t help.

As those answers come, the end of the novel feels rushed as information is dumped on the reader through a discovered diary. The full scenes McMahon was able to portray of the young Lisa give way to quick flashes and hints of scenes that may have played better if more fully developed.

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