This is Not the Jess Show, Anna Carey (Quirk 978-1-68369-197-6, $18.99, hc, 298pp) February 2021.
From the moment readers first meet her in Anna Carey’s breakneck thriller, This is Not the Jess Show, it is clear that Jess Flynn is living a classic 1998 life. True, her younger sister Sara has been battling an extremely rare disease for a few years and her parents are obviously frazzled with concern, but for Jess life is mostly about high school, whether or not she should be crushing on her best friend Tyler, and how to dodge the sudden attention of her class’s popular jock, Patrick. None of that description seems in the slightest bit fantastic, but here’s the catch: Jess’s world isn’t real and she’s just about to figure that out for herself.
Early on, Carey does an excellent job of lulling readers into Jess’s all-too-ordinary life. Her parents are thoroughly present if a bit controlling, but that’s easy to understand when you consider Sara’s illness. Jess spends most of her days dropping in and out of the company of close friends Amber and Kristen, while also carving out time for Tyler, whom she has known her entire life. While the town of Swickley is incredibly small and Jess isn’t given much room by her parents to explore beyond it, it’s all still very small-town middle-class America, right down to her aging but much beloved dog and addiction to crappy Friday night television. (Remember, this is the ’90s.)
The problem is that everything is just a little bit off – conversations stop when Jess enters the room, Patrick’s sudden interest makes no sense, and everyone (except an increasingly attentive Tyler) seems overly preoccupied with getting the two of them together no matter what Jess has to say about it. Then half the town suddenly comes down with the flu and hunkers down, unseen, in their houses, a weird piece of technology is dropped from a backpack and Kristen and Amber scramble to hide it, and no one seems willing to answer a single question. Then Jess’s dog bites her and she realizes, he is not her dog.
Something is clearly rotten in the town of Swickley.
The first half of This is Not the Jess Show is all about outlining the mystery and then, when Jess uncovers the truth, the second half is about escape. At this point the thriller aspects really take over and she, along with an unexpected companion, set out in an actual race for freedom. Getting lost in the crowd is the goal, but it proves to be more difficult than Jess realizes. It is here that Carey’s stumbles just a bit, with a final few pages and ending that are a bit too pat and rely upon one of those happenstance meet-ups that robs the narrative of the confrontation readers have likely been hoping for. It’s still a decent ending; it just got a little too easy after all the hurdles that came before.
The most significant part of the novel to me, however, was how believable the whole thing was. Can I imagine parents making the sort of choices that Jess’s parents do? Yes. Can I imagine greed and desperation overcoming issues of morality for everyone involved? Yes. And can I imagine a bored public embracing entertainment with little care for anyone? OH MY, YES. These questions are what elevate This is Not the Jess Show beyond the level of escapist fiction (which it easily achieves) and up to something more thoughtful and, honestly, more terrifying than you might expect.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the May 2021 issue of Locus.
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