The Last Thing He Told Me front book cover
Laura Dave
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, copyright May 2021
Pages: 344 (ebook edition)

Genre: Whydunit

The mistake I made with this book was choosing to start reading it at 8:30 PM on a weeknight. The story grabbed me from the Prologue onward, and it had me wishing at 2:00 AM, when I absolutely, positively had to go to bed, that I would’ve been a fast enough reader to finish it in one night.

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave was an instant #1 NYT Bestseller and a winner of the GoodReads Choice Award for Best Mystery and Thriller of 2021. It’s been optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company for a limited Apple TV+ series, with Jennifer Garner now slated for the starring role. The author, along with her screenwriter husband Josh Singer, will be writing the film adaptation. Pretty impressive credentials for a book that’s been out for less than a year, but it’s a very fast-paced, compelling tale and it has, to date, over 42,000 five-star reviews on Amazon alone.

Here’s the back-cover blurb:

We all have stories we never tell. Before Owen Michaels disappears, he manages to smuggle a note to his beloved wife of one year: Protect her.

Despite her confusion and fear, Hannah Hall knows exactly to whom the note refers: Owen’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Bailey. Bailey, who lost her mother tragically as a child. Bailey, who wants absolutely nothing to do with her new stepmother.

As Hannah’s increasingly desperate calls to Owen go unanswered; as the FBI arrests Owen’s boss; as a US Marshal and FBI agents arrive at her Sausalito home unannounced, Hannah quickly realizes her husband isn’t who he said he was. And that Bailey just may hold the key to figuring out Owen’s true identity—and why he really disappeared.

Hannah and Bailey set out to discover the truth, together. But as they start putting together the pieces of Owen’s past, they soon realize they are also building a new future. One neither Hannah nor Bailey could have anticipated.

In the words of Reese Witherspoon, who selected the novel for her book club as well as snapping up those film rights, this novel is the “ultimate page turner.” Based on my own experience with the story, I certainly agree.

Here’s my Blake Snyder Beat Sheet analysis:

Opening Image (Front Matter pp. 1–6; Prologue pp. 7–9): Hannah Hall’s new husband, Owen Michaels, used to tease her about her tendency to misplace things. About a week after his recent disappearance, she has a dream that she’s lost him, too.

Set-Up (pp. 10–30): On the day of her husband’s disappearance, a schoolgirl comes to the front door with a letter for Hannah. It’s from Owen, and it says: “Protect her.” Artistic Hannah, who works as a woodworking artist (or a “woodturner”), making upscale rustic furniture for wealthy clients, is talented at many things, but she’s not successful at developing a good relationship with her 16-year-old stepdaughter, Bailey. Hannah grew up with a largely absent mom and was, instead, raised by her kind grandfather, who first taught her to sculpt wood. She met Owen, a computer programmer and a widower, just over two years ago in New York City while he was there on a trip with his boss, Avett. Owen’s smile drew her in and their connection was undeniable. Soon, they were engaged and, about a year ago, they got married.

Hannah moved across the country to the Bay Area to be with him and his daughter, and the three of them live on a very nice floating home in Sausalito, California. Readers are introduced to their houseboat “neighborhood” on the bay, which Hannah thinks is beautiful. But her newlywed life isn’t all easy. She recalls the many times she’d tried to have a closer relationship with Bailey, but most attempts had fallen flat.

As Hannah tries repeatedly to reach Owen, she’s concerned because he’s not returning her calls. This is unlike him, and she’s mystified by it.

Theme Stated (pp. 32–33): Bailey has play practice, and when Hannah drives to the school to pick her up, her stepdaughter enters the car, deeply shaken. She, too, has received a note from Owen, although hers was placed in her locker along with a duffle bag. (More on that coming up.) In Owen’s note to Bailey, he writes: “You know what matters about me. And you know what matters about yourself. Please hold on to it.” Her dad seems to want to emphasize to her that, while some details may change, the essentials about each of them remain true.

Catalyst (pp. 30–33): Just before Bailey got into the car, Hannah had been listening to the radio. She heard that Owen’s start-up tech firm, known as The Shop, has been raided by the SEC and the FBI, following a 14-month investigation into the company. Owen’s friend/boss Avett, who is the CEO, has been taken into custody on embezzlement and fraud charges. When Bailey joins Hannah, both of them are scared for Owen’s safety and neither had a clue that there were such serious problems at his work. But there’s more. Not only did Bailey’s father leave her this cryptic message, he also left her a duffle bag stuffed with rolls of cash. Bailey estimates it’s over $600K.

Debate (pp. 33–53): As Hannah tries to deal with her shock and her personal confusion, she also finds herself questioning her parenting decisions. She’s never had to be fully in charge of Bailey by herself, and she worries about doing things right. But she has no choice but to try to figure it out. Owen isn’t there to help her, and for the first time, she wonders what will happen if he doesn’t return. Plus, there’s now this extra amount of money in their possession. What should she do with it?

Hannah’s longtime friend, Jules, who works as a photo editor for a  San Francisco newspaper, comes over. Jules admits she knew about the raid that was coming and, furthermore, she confesses she’d secretly called Owen to warn him. Turns out, he wasn’t surprised it was happening. The only question he’d asked was how long he had to get out. Jules told him he had, maybe, a couple of hours.

Break into Two (p. 53): Based on what she’s now learned from Jules, Hannah realizes that Owen didn’t leave to save himself. Rather, he left for a reason that somehow involved Bailey. To try to save his daughter from something or someone he considered dangerous.

B Story (pp. 54–57): This subplot is all about the mother-stepdaughter relationship, particularly Hannah’s attempts to reach out to Bailey, to truly become a parent, and for the two of them to figure out how to relate to each other in Owen’s absence. Because of Hannah’s own childhood, she’s very sensitive when it comes to issues of parental abandonment. She desperately wants to make sure Bailey knows she’s loved and that she can trust Hannah. In a strange way, she wonders, did Owen’s decision to leave do them a favor with regard to their fledgling mother/child relationship?

Fun and Games (pp. 58–152): Not “fun” in the traditional sense, perhaps, but definitely the promise of the premise. Investigations begin in earnest—not just Hannah’s and Bailey’s attempts to figure out Owen’s whereabouts, but there’s a sudden appearance of a man from the U.S. Marshal’s office, Deputy Grady Bradford, who is (oddly) based in Austin, Texas, not in California. Grady claims he wants to protect Owen and, also, that he wants to be sure that Hannah is granted temporary custody of Bailey. He tells her, “Owen is not who you think he is.”

Hannah digs for clues where she can. She hacks into her husband’s laptop, fends off thinly veiled threats from a pair of FBI agents, and tries to find a lawyer she can trust. She eventually reaches out to a man named Jake, who’s not only a lawyer (albeit one who’s based in New York), but he’s also her ex-fiancé. In talking with him, Hannah recalls several strange conversations she’d had over the past couple of years with Owen. Upon reflection, things he said didn’t always add up. Details were occasionally inconsistent. She tries to help Bailey jog her memory, hoping there might be additional clues hidden in the past. Bailey can barely remember her life from before her mother’s death and her move to Sausalito with her father, but she does remember attending a wedding in Texas when she was a very little girl. She recalls a church and a football stadium. Coincidentally, the city in question turns out to be Austin.

Midpoint (pp. 152–159): Jake the lawyer calls Hannah with some disturbing news: Owen Michaels does not appear to exist. He either lied about his name or he lied about his personal details. Jake’s theory is that Owen was worried about his past potentially catching up with him. Jake thinks Hannah and Bailey may be in danger and invites them to come stay with him in New York for a while, but Hannah declines.

Bad Guys Close In (pp. 160–252): Bailey remembers that her boyfriend told her he’d tried to find Owen’s name in the contact list for Princeton University alums (since that’s the college Owen said he’d attended), but he couldn’t locate her dad. Bailey thought her boyfriend simply hadn’t searched in the right place, but now both Bailey and Hannah believe this was fabricated. That Owen studied someplace else altogether. That, in fact, he’d lived in a totally different part of the country. Hannah gets a call from the wife of the arrested CEO of The Shop. The two of them are hunting for information on Owen’s whereabouts. Hannah can tell from this call with Avett’s wife that Owen’s boss is guilty of the charges leveled against him and that his wife is aware of that, too. What Hannah still doesn’t know is whether Owen is equally guilty.

CNN is claiming more indictments are coming soon, and Hannah realizes that even though there isn’t a warrant out for Owen’s arrest yet, the Feds are threatening to come after anyone potentially involved in the company’s fraud. Hannah and Bailey review stories that Owen told them over the years, and they work together to remember the name of his favorite college professor. Hannah tracks down the man, who’s been teaching for almost 30 years at the same place: the University of Texas at Austin. On a hunch, Hannah and Bailey fly there, walk around campus, and visit the professor. The man remembers Owen, proof positive that Owen had lied about his life, but Hannah and Bailey still don’t know why. And they haven’t yet been able to figure out Owen’s real name.

However, they visit the church that Bailey remembers being at for that wedding. And they find a photograph of a female classmate of his that bears a striking resemblance to Bailey. The clues lead them to a bar near campus, but as soon as Hannah shows the owner of the bar a photo of Owen, he gets extremely angry. When Bailey walks in, the bar owner stares at her in shock and calls her by another name.

The truth starts to be revealed about Owen’s and Bailey’s actual backstory. The bar owner, they discover, is named Charlie, and he’s the brother of Bailey’s dead mom. Charlie’s dad is, therefore, Bailey’s grandfather. The grandfather—Nicholas—worked as a lawyer with links to a large crime syndicate, and Owen believed the “accident” that killed Bailey’s mother was a result of that interaction. Grief-stricken and furious, Owen gave evidence to the police about both Nicholas and the syndicate, then he changed his name and his young daughter’s name, altered many of the details of their lives, and moved them to California to start again. Bailey was too young at the time to remember much of this and just accepted her new life in Sausalito. At long last, Hannah knows Owen’s real name and why he and Bailey disappeared from Texas.

All Is Lost (p. 252): Just when Hannah has finally put the puzzle pieces together and is trying to pack and get the two of them away from these people and back home, Bailey disappears from the hotel.

Dark Night of the Soul (pp. 252–253): Hannah is searching all over the hotel for Bailey, running through all the places her stepdaughter might go, knowing how terrified Bailey must be right now after learning so much about her parents and her past. Hannah is mad at herself for not protecting Bailey the way Owen had wanted her to.

Break into Three (p. 253): Suddenly, Grady the U.S. Marshal appears on the scene. Despite having held back so much of the truth when Hannah had asked him for it, Grady now tells her that, by playing detective, she “certainly made a mess of things.” That said, he agrees to help her find Bailey and bring her back to safety.

Finale (pp. 254–340): Hannah wants her daughter to be free to continue living her life as “Bailey Michaels,” not to go into hiding or into some kind of witness protection program. Not to have to change her name again or avoid taking part in activities she loves so she can live under the radar. The only way for this to happen is if Hannah can somehow negotiate their freedom with Bailey’s grandfather Nicholas and with the cartel members who still want revenge against Owen.

Hannah understands that Owen wasn’t precisely who she’d thought he was, at least not as far as the specific details he’d told her. But she believes that when you love somebody, you accept all the parts of them. You accept them enough to not let the bad parts become the entire story. In order to truly protect Bailey, which has always been Owen’s deepest wish, Hannah must accept that she’ll likely have to live a life without her husband. She makes a deal with Bailey’s grandfather. Hannah and Bailey will get to continue living their regular lives, Nicholas will have a chance to get to know his granddaughter again, and the crime syndicate won’t be able to touch them. Nicholas can do this—however, this immunity agreement doesn’t extend to Owen. The crime bosses will come after Owen, if he reappears.

Bailey gets a brief phone call from her dad. She, too, realizes he can’t come back. That he would never be safe. Hannah knows there’s one thing that is true about Owen: There is nothing he wouldn’t do for his daughter. Ultimately, whatever is safest for Bailey is what Owen wants, and Hannah is willing to make the sacrifice to live an Owen-less life because she loves him so much… and she loves his daughter, too. Hannah and Bailey start moving closer to each other and begin to develop a genuine and trusting relationship.

Final Image (Epilogue pp. 341–344): It’s several years later and Hannah is exhibiting her work in LA. Inside the busy convention center, she sees a man who bears some resemblance to Owen. He changed in lots of ways, but he’s still wearing the wedding band she’d once made for him. They have only the briefest of interactions, but he lets her know that he still loves her, then walks away. Moments later, Bailey comes to visit her, bringing along her new boyfriend. Hannah’s stepdaughter greets her warmly and now calls her “Mom.”

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