Likely Stories: The Life Group by Maura Jortner

Apr 13, 2017

Suspenseful debut novel of a young girl who disappears after visiting an odd church


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

I am grateful and appreciative of friends and the occasional stranger who offer me books to read for Likely Stories.  In the case of Maura Jortner’s The Life Group, I faced a different dilemma.  The novel was labeled YA – Young Adult, but this did not present a problem.  I read and enjoyed The Book Thief, The Giver as well as a number of other YA titles.  The problem arose at the last 40 or so pages.

The story is clearly set in Waco, with several landmarks mentioned along with “Brazos University” and Lake Waco.  Rachel is a high school student, and her sister, Leah, has disappeared after visiting a radical Christian church.  Rachel is determined to find her sister, even though a month or so after her disappearance, the police have found no clues to Leah’s whereabouts.  An odd pastor of the odd church connects Leah with an older man, who seems pious and anxious to help Rachel.  They drive around the city, and try to question friends who may know something.  One clique of young women only say “It’s God’s plan.”

Interspersed among the pages of Rachel’s adventures, is a YouTube video counting views which increase by the hundreds.  By the end of the novel, these pieces of the puzzle amount to nearly 2 million views.  Jortner slowly builds suspense to a completely surprising ending.  Near the end, Tim is driving Rachel to the church.  Jortner writes, “As we travel to Salvation Day Church, I gaze out the window and watch the world go by.  ‘Leah,’ I whisper quiet enough so Tim can’t hear, ‘where are you? Are you going to hurt yourself?’  My chest feels heavy.  A great longing for my sister—stupid and annoying as she is—has balled itself up and lodged under my sternum.  A sudden thought grips me: this is why they call it a heavy heart.  I glanced at my phone one more time, hoping to see a text or notification, but it remains stubbornly blank.  I toss it down harder than I meant to, but it lands in my open purse.  It bounces once, then stays put” (185).  This is the beginning of the end of the story, the ramping of the suspense, and the appearance of my problem with the novel.

The last pages are as suspenseful as any novel I have recently read.  I could not wait to find out what happened to Leah.  But to get to the climax, I had to work my way around obstacles.  Now, I am far from a prude, but the sudden explosion of obscenities—both spoken and thought by Rachel took me aback.  I counted more than 40 examples, not including a few in the early pages before I started counting.  I am not entirely convinced these added anything to the story line.  However, I did question a couple of friends who are now parenting teens, and they assured me this is how this generation speaks.  They don’t like it, they discourage the use of this word—especially around the house, but there is no complete escape from them.  I have also listened as I pass groups of students around my campus, and I have heard the word more than a few times.

So, I will recommend Maura Jortner’s exciting and suspenseful novel, The Life Group with a caution to readers that the word flies fast and furious.  4 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read more at RabbitReaderBlog.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!