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What Would You Do: Then She Was Gone

It’s time for another What Would You Do episode! This week, Brook and Sarah discuss Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell and share their thoughts on this domestic thriller.

Books and authors mentioned

Then She Was Gone (2017) Lisa Jewell

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SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook. And we both love mystery.
Hi Sarah. How are you? great and I’m really excited for our episode today.
SarahHi Brook I’m good, thank you. How are you?
BrookGreat and I’m really excited for our episode today.
SarahMe too. So, we are doing another “What would you do” episode where we’re going to break down a book and get into a lot of detail. Today we’re going to be talking about Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell. So, if you haven’t read it yet, we encourage you to do that first, so you don’t get any spoilers in the conversation that Brook and I are about to have.
BrookThat’s right. So I’ll start us off with a summary of the plot. We join the story ten years after main character, Laurel Mack’s teen daughter Ellie has disappeared. And Laurel is essentially a shell of the woman she used to be. The disappearance of their daughter put the final nails in the coffin of her marriage and Paul, her ex-husband, now has a new partner. Even worse, Laurel has very little relationship with their other two remaining children Jake and Hannah.

Soon after the opening of the novel police find partial remains of Ellie and theorize that the teen was attempting to run away from home. The family is now able to hold a funeral. And while this should give Laurel some closure, what she ends up with is a mystery.
About a month after Ellie’s funeral, Laurel meets Floyd Dunn who seems to be the man of her dreams. And for the first time since Ellie’s disappearance, Laurel feels a sense of happiness and hope. But when she meets Floyd’s nine-year-old daughter, Poppy, she is immediately struck by physical similarities between Poppy and her own daughter, Ellie. She brushes this off. She’s done this before in the years since she lost Ellie thinking that someone resembled her.

And she throws herself into her new romantic relationship with Floyd. And the relationship with him seems to do Laurel a lot of good. She seeks forgiveness from her ex-husband Paul, she shares some happy moments with her ailing mother. And finds herself finally taking an interest in daily routines again, such as trying to look pretty and getting dressed up and even cooking delicious meals. She begins an attempt at this point as well to reconcile with her daughter Hannah, who honestly, she’s never been close with. In fact, after Ellie’s disappearance Laurel secretly wishes it had been Hannah who disappeared instead of her golden girl Ellie.

But with the newfound optimism and hope, Laurel also discovers strange coincidences. For instance, Noelle Donnelly is Floyd’s ex and Poppy’s mom and Floyd very early on tells Laurel that Noelle Donnelly disappeared when Poppy was just four. And oddly enough Laurel eventually realizes that Noelle was her daughter’s math tutor in the months before she vanished. Furthermore, Floyd’s older daughter from a previous relationship tells Laurel that she saw Noelle Donnelly coming out of the shower when she was eight months pregnant and she definitely did not have a baby bump.

Laurel begins investigating Noelle Donnelly, even going to her house where some of her family still lives. And she finds this creepy basement that has a door with three locks. And it’s at this time that Laurel also begins to admit the strange relationship between Floyd and Poppy. Laurel also catches Floyd in some lies about Noelle Donnelly, making Laurel feel torn between feeling suspicious of him and yet wanting to maintain this new exciting relationship. Flashbacks in multiple points of view inform the reader of what really happened to Ellie while Laurel continues to search for the truth in present time.

Finally, on Christmas Day, Laurel goes to Floyd’s house and he abruptly leaves her to watch a recording. On it he admits to killing Noelle when she told him how she’d kidnapped Ellie and impregnated her when she couldn’t carry a baby to term herself. And then she tricked Floyd into thinking Poppy was his own child. In the recording, Floyd entrusts Poppy to Laurel, who is her biological grandmother, and then commits suicide.

Despite the trauma of learning the truth about Ellie’s traumatic kidnapping Laurel finds new meaning for her life. She renews a relationship with her family, particularly Hannah, which is really good to see. And has a new mission in life to raise her daughter Ellie’s daughter Poppy. So that’s a summary of the main plotline of Then She Was Gone.

And I’ll admit this was a rather hard book to read as a mom and I imagine it was for you too, Sarah. So it should make a really good “what would you do” discussion today. Shall we start with the family dynamics before Ellie’s disappearance?
SarahThanks, Brook. That was a great summary and yeah, let’s start talking about that. We’ve been talking about unreliable narrators and a lot of the first part of the book comes from Laurel’s point of view and you know she talks about how wonderful her daughter was right? And there are a few scenes leading up to Ellie’s disappearance and I kind of wonder how much of her remembering how wonderful her daughter was is just the result of time and her having disappeared and you know how you kind of build someone up in your mind as being perhaps better than they were. Certainly, the way it’s portrayed is that Ellie was really the center of the family, and everybody adored her.
BrookThat’s a really astute observation I hadn’t thought of it with the idea of the unreliable narrator on top of it. But you’re right, we all do that. I think it’s very common that when you’re thinking back about somebody you’ve lost you only remember the good parts, which is probably good. I think it’s probably a good thing about our memories. But sure, she’s just really built up… I mean they call her “golden girl”. And she is does seem to be that golden girl to the family at the detriment I have to admit to the relationship, at least Laurel’s relationship, with the other two children, which made me really sad. I’m a mom of one child, so I haven’t had this experience. But I hope that I wouldn’t do that. When I see that in other families where you have the star child and then the other. Children are you know, just kind of there I hope that I wouldn’t do that.
SarahYeah I’m like you I just have one child, so I can’t speak from personal experience. But, yeah I would hope the same as well. And I think again I think this is where kind of memory gets clouded by time, I wonder if in retrospect Ellie became more golden. Because her children—her other children—they’re actually not that present in the book, which I think reflects how present they are in her life. Particularly her son, like you know he doesn’t live in the same community and there’s a couple of scenes with him but he’s really not present. But one of my first questions for you was would you clean your adult daughter’s apartment?
BrookI think that that relationship that she has with Hannah where she’s—so she does she like basically goes into be her house cleaner once a week and she even gets paid and she says she puts the money away for future grandchildren or something. It’s very striking so it does lend itself to the question of how reliable this narration is because she claims to not have a tight knit relationship with Hannah but there has to be some relationship there to be allowed to come in and clean up the house once a week. I definitely think I would not do that, except for if that is like her one way that she feels like she’s clinging to some type of relationship with Hannah. But it definitely sets it up at the beginning you think “Ok this person might not be super stable.”
SarahDefinitely. I got that sense that this was you know her going in and cleaning her daughter’s apartment was her way of maintaining a connection with her even though they very rarely spoke to each other or saw each other right? And there’s no mention of Hannah coming over to Laurel’s apartment. So, I assume that that that that really didn’t happen. And so, it’s almost as if she’s created this world for herself where people exist in it but they’re not present, if that makes sense. And you know I don’t know if I would do the same if I’d had a similar experience to Laurel. I think you probably would lose some trust that people were going to continue to be in your life, right? Because you’ve had that one terrible experience where someone disappeared. How do you trust that’s not going to happen again?
BrookYeah, and I feel the same way. One of my opening questions to you was “Would you push your husband away in such a dramatic fashion?” Because she admits that he wasn’t a bad guy. He wasn’t hurting her. He hadn’t betrayed her. She just kind of got angry about how he handled the disappearance and basically used it as an excuse to end the relationship. And I mean I don’t feel that I would do that, sense that I would be the kind of person who, even if the marriage wasn’t perfect, that would be the time where I would want to keep it intact. Because you know this is the other person who maybe in the whole world understands what I’m going through. So, what did you think of that scenario, Sarah?
SarahYeah, I don’t know. I think it’s probably pretty common when there’s a traumatic event like that for the relationship not to survive, right?
I think I probably would withdraw. But yeah, I would also probably want to seek comfort from the people who were still there and she really seemed to push everybody away, but certainly when she. you know 10 years later when the most of the book is set, when she reflects on Paul, it’s always with kindness and you can see that there’s still love there.
BrookI actually really loved their relationship and from that standpoint, I think that’s part of my sadness. There is still a lot there between you two and it. But you’re right. We see that happen a lot in a family with a trauma. Oftentimes the relationship falls apart. And it is too bad.
SarahSo maybe just staying with her relationship with Hannah, that provides her with an opportunity to snoop a little bit and make some deductions about what’s happening in Hannah’s life because she’s not getting that from Hannah herself right. And I wonder, would you do that, Brook? Do you think you would try and piece together what was going on? It certainly is suggested in the book that Hannah’s not telling Laurel, she’s not sharing with Laurel what is going on in her life. And Laurel clearly suspects something is up. So do you think you would be trying to piece together the clues?
BrookI think that this does two things for us. It gets her into a quote unquote investigation early on where before the true mystery of the book hasn’t started yet so we get to see her as sort of a sleuth. But, you’re right. Would I do it? I would try not to, but let’s face it. You know this is your kid’s life and your kid’s apartment and it would be super tempting to you know she sees a card, obviously like a love note sort of card in the in the garbage, and I might be guilty of snooping and reading that. Yeah.
SarahOh, I probably would too because I mean I have to do that a little bit now right? Like I ask my son how his day at school was and I get “Fine.” I’ll have to rummage through his backpack and kind of piece together what happened during the day to just verify that yeah, the day was fine. So, yeah, I mean I’m already doing that.
BrookYeah, and just wait till he’s a teenager you’ll find yourself looking for more verification in things as well. So, I think it’s sort of a parenting thing right.
SarahSo let’s talk a little bit about the mystery of the book. So, it really is introduced when Floyd walks into that coffee shop and he sits down beside her. And they have this instant moment and their relationship starts. And it was pretty shortly… I think it was that after their first date when he says “I know who you are. I googled you.” So, he admits that he did that. Would you have googled him before you went out with him?
BrookYeah, that whole interaction. Maybe I’m just that person who—well there’s no maybe about it. If someone had asked me to share their cake, a complete stranger had asked me to share their cake with them at a coffee shop, that would have been a turnoff for me. “Okay you’re creepy. I don’t want to a bite of your cake.”

But we have Laurel who is incredibly lonely and we’ve talked about this whole setup this issue that she has about not having really anyone in her life. So, she’s in a different place and she takes this bait and he’s very handsome. He’s dressed to a T. He smells good and she does interact with him right off the bat. But I agree. I think especially because of the way they met, and he was so forthcoming. I think I would have wanted to know a little bit about him before because she’s the one that initiates. He gives her the number and she calls him. I think a little bit of investigation beforehand would have been in order.
SarahI don’t think she looks him up until after they’ve gone out, what a couple of times, right? Certainly, after she’s met him a couple of times. That’s when she starts to look into him. I’m with you I think I probably would just want to know who I was meeting.
I will admit that I have, on more than one occasion, had a conversation with a stranger and when I’ve told my husband after, he’s like “What are you doing?”
BrookWell and she’s at a point, they’ve buried Ellie, she’s at a point where I think she’s ready to move on too and so this opportunity to meet this guy kind of comes at her and she’s like “ok well you it’s a new life. It’s time to move on.” So, she does that.

He tells her at their very first dinner that um his younger daughter’s mom has had disappeared. And because of the fact that Laurel’s daughter had disappeared as well. Would you have said it at the same time? At that point would you be like “Oh my gosh. That’s so strange because I had someone close to me disappear.”
SarahI don’t know. It certainly would give me pause. And we know, at the end of the book, that he all along knew what he was doing.

But when you’re reading it, you don’t know who he is and you don’t know at this point that his daughter, unless you’ve read the blurb on the back of the book, you don’t know at this point that his daughter looks like her daughter. And so yeah, as you say, she’s ready to move on and so maybe it makes sense that she doesn’t bring that up.
BrookAnd we’re so we’re at that beginning relationship stage where everybody’s putting their best face forward. You know you don’t want to reveal, “Hey, I’ve got loads and loads of baggage.” You know you want to kind of be somebody who is attractive. So yeah, I think we can understand maybe why she doesn’t and also know that the story needed that to happen.
SarahThere are certainly some clues for her. When she first meets Poppy and she’s reminded of her of her daughter and dismisses it and then a couple of other people in her family meet Poppy and make similar observations. How many times do you think you would have to hear that before you started to be like “Hey, what is going on?”
BrookYeah, exactly and it’s not just physical similarities like she um has some mannerisms and even some sort of philosophies that are similar to her daughter’s. It seems that Laurel is willfully ignoring it because she just she just can’t even accept that concept.
And you know Poppy isn’t a very likable character in the story. I think that in fact if you take out this the traumatic experience that Laurel’s had and she’s just super excited to be in a relationship, if you took that out, Poppy could be a deal breaker. When you meet this man’s daughter who is very overbearing and he just kind of lets her say whatever. He’s not a very involved dad, it seems like with her as far as like manners and things like that. She could be a deal breaker for me. What about you?
SarahYeah that’s a good question. I mean I think she so much wants to move on and Floyd seems like this perfect guy. He is intelligent, and he really seems to care about her. He’s not playing any games. He’s very transparent about how he feels and how he wants her to be in his life. He several times reminds her of Paul, her ex-husband. And so, I don’t know, I think if, particularly because Poppy is so similar to her daughter, I can see why she would put up with Poppy’s strangeness.

And you know Poppy isn’t a very likable character in the story. I think that in fact if you take out this the traumatic experience that Laurel’s had and she’s just super excited to be in a relationship, if you took that out, Poppy could be a deal breaker. When you meet this man’s daughter who is very overbearing and he just kind of lets her say whatever. He’s not a very involved dad, it seems like with her as far as like manners and things like that. She could be a deal breaker for me. What about you?
BrookAnd Laurel uses it. She sees it as something that Poppy needs in her life. She’s like “This is a little girl who needs a mom.” So, I think that that tips the scales for her too, rather than saying, “I’ve raised my kids and I don’t want to have to deal with this kind of weird nine-year-old.” She sees it as this little girl needs me.
SarahI read this twice to prepare for our conversation and I had a very different experience reading it the second time. The first time I had no idea kind of what was going on. And what was the relationship between Floyd and Poppy and whether you know she’s now in a relationship with the father of her granddaughter. The second time that I read it, I found Laurel’s unwillingness to explore any of these similarities and questions that other people were asking her, I found that to be almost annoying. I was kind of like, “Why aren’t you seeing this?” I didn’t so much feel that the first time that I read through this.
BrookRight? I did too. I went through it twice and I experienced the same thing. The first time I was right along with her. I mean, sure I’ve voiced some things that like “Oh, I wouldn’t have done that,” but we have to suspend disbelief to keep stories moving. So I was I was with her along this and Floyd seemed like such a great catch, and you understood you wanted her to be happy. And, so, I could dismiss some of her blinders that she was wearing. But again, the second time, I was with you. I thought she was much less likable the second time for me when I knew what was really up.

And maybe that’s not fair because when you already know the twist, when you already know Floyd orchestrated this entire thing, and maybe he was orchestrating it for a good reason because in the end trying to get Poppy and Laurel united, it’s still, he was imitating Paul and that’s the reason why she he reminded Laurel of Paul. He was doing this intentionally. And when she saw the old pictures even of him and knew that he had been in a relationship with this very unkempt, kind of greasy lady, I think all those things I would have wanted to dig into that so much more than she did all along. She would just kind of stay on the surface and ignore some of these red flags.
SarahYeah, it was almost like she didn’t want to break this bubble that had started to form around her. And so didn’t want to you know pierce it with any of her questions. But yeah, I felt that much more the second time around than I did the first.
So she does kind of start to investigate, right? She figures out how to get into Noelle’s house. She finds the number that she had for Noelle when she had been a tutor for Ellie, dials the number, reaches Noelle’s nephew who’s living in the house now, and he lets her come over and she does a little bit of a snoop around the house or you know he takes her on a tour. She finds that lip balm. Would you have taken it?
BrookI think so yeah, it seemed like such a key piece of evidence.
SarahExactly. That was an important piece for her and I do remember the first time I read this feeling at that point “Why aren’t you doing something about this now?” You’re starting to put these pieces together. But still, all she does is just kind of ask a few more questions of Floyd to understand Noelle a little bit better. But she doesn’t—I guess because again she doesn’t want to break that relationship that’s starting to form with him—she doesn’t allow herself to really ask those questions.
BrookAnd maybe that’s part of why I felt that unlikability because I think for me motherhood trumps all. I mean, we have that mama bear thing and I feel like at this point in time, you’re realizing this group of people knows something about what happened to my daughter and I feel like you would have, yeah, she does question him. But again, it’s very superficial and it’s very courteous or whatever. I think you’d be ninety miles an hour going in there like “What the heck do you know about my daughter?”

The other thing I think that I would have wanted to do at this point is to learn more about the first wife, his first relationship. He has an older child with this woman like I would want to know. Because she’s figuring out that Noelle is nothing—seemingly visually nothing—like Floyd. So, I would have wanted to go and talk to that woman and like “What do you know about them? What do you know about what happened?” She never even talks with that woman at all in the story.
SarahThat’s right, she doesn’t appear at all. I think her daughter talks about her and Floyd maybe talks about her once or twice, but there’s no interaction between Laurel and her. I feel like she asked some questions, but she was really narrow in terms of where she was doing her investigation.
Do you think you would have done like a DNA test or something on Poppy?
BrookOh, that’s a really interesting idea. It certainly would have been an opportunity. And I think that when you talked about being narrow, I think it would have been an opportunity for her to engage with Paul. Like to go to Paul, Ellie’s dad, and be like “Look at what’s going on. You know, look at all this evidence.” And then I think when you have and somebody else who would be invested in wanting to investigate. Then maybe you would then do some things like that. Well let’s get a DNA test. Let’s go interview so and so. And I think all things that still could have made the story work. Because then you’d have perhaps the opportunity of having her carry on a fake relationship, so to speak, with Floyd in order to continue to gather information but not be this sort of, you know, dear in the headlights. Just oh my gosh somebody finally loves me again. That bothered me. I wanted her to fight for her daughter more at this stage.
SarahYeah, because I think she, so she does know that her daughter is dead right? Because they’ve already buried her. That happened at the very beginning. But she has no idea what happened between when she disappeared and when those bones were found, right? I feel like maybe I would be asking a few more questions but the book works. I did enjoy it. I think I might have if I were a Laurel I would have done a few things differently I think.
She does track down Noelle’s family. So in addition to speaking to her nephew, the one who’s living in in Noelle’s house, she does have a conversation with Noelle’s mother to find out where she thinks she might be. Noelle’s mother is not portrayed in a particularly sympathetic way. She says the last time that she saw her was in in 1984 which is twenty over twenty years before the book was set. No thirty years. Because the book is said in in 2015, I think. She hasn’t seen her for 30 years and really doesn’t express much in the way of curiosity, even though Noelle had been on her way to Ireland to see her mother. When she ended up dying, that was her intention was to go and be with her family. So, there’s a bit of a contrast in terms of how those two mothers have dealt with disappearances of their of their daughters.
BrookTrue. They are sort of mirror characters. But we have Noelle Donnelly—a complete black sheep of her family. Even the nephews that live in the home that she used to live in don’t seem very concerned that she disappeared, don’t really know too much about her as a family member. So she was definitely this just ghostly black sheep character in the book.

And speaking of things that Laurel did do to try to find information, she actually takes Poppy to that house and she thinks that this is her family so she wants to introduce Poppy to her would-be cousins.
Which I thought was really gutsy because we know that Poppy is this kid that’s probably going to go home and tell all, because she and her dad are very enmeshed. So that was a move that was pretty gutsy I have to admit.
SarahI don’t know if I would have done that actually right like because Poppy was such a wild card right in terms of how is Floyd going to react to learning about this because inevitably he will. There were a few more questions I think she could have asked.
BrookShe was hoping that Poppy would have some childhood memories of being in the home. And she does. She reveals some things which reading it for that first time that was actually a really fun scene because you realize “ok, she really did live here” because there’s questions of who this girl is for a long time. So that was interesting to learn that she really was Noelle’s daughter. It continues to put that question mark of who is she and how does she look like Ellie? So, from that point it was pretty satisfying to read but I don’t think it did much for Laurel’s investigation.
SarahI agree I think it was probably important for the book.
After reading this twice now, the second time, again I think because I already knew what the answers to the questions were, the second time it almost read to me like women’s fiction because there was this mystery about Poppy, but it’s a pretty happy ending. And really the only the only people who truly have secrets are Noelle and Floyd. So, it’s not like a lot of domestic thrillers where all the characters have secrets and something to hide and you know something that they don’t want to come out into the open. Everybody else is happy. And yeah you know in good relationships and it was one of the happiest endings that I’ve read in the mystery genre.
BrookYes, and we talked about that in our domestic thriller episode where many times the book ends in a worse place than it began at least emotionally for the main character or some or something like that. But you’re right. That was my takeaway. I felt really good when I finished the story like I loved the situation that the family was in. I always had really warm feelings between she and Paul but at the end they’re in a really good place and she’s met Paul’s partner and she’s very sweet to her and now she’s reunited with her children. Great point more of a women’s fiction feel and the only bad guys were the bad guys.
SarahSo it was it was um, it was a little bit different in that respect. Thanks Brook I think this has been a really great conversation.
BrookWell Sarah I’m so glad that we’ve started this special feature and we’ll be on the lookout for our next. “What would you do” read.
SarahI’m looking forward to it.
BrookWhat about you, mystery fans? Do you agree with our breakdown of this one? You can let us know on social media or email us at Hello@cluedinmystery.com. And for today, thank you so much for joining us on Clued in Mystery. I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah. And we both love mystery.