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The Return


The Return

Molly, Mae, Julie and Elise are best friends. Though their adult lives have moved them across the country and onto different career paths, the bonds they forged in college remain fiercely strong. Mae is calm, selfless and logical, while Molly is the funniest of the quartet and the one with the mean streak. Julie and Elise think of themselves as the closest, so similar that their friendship swings between declarations of love and passive-aggressive fights.

When Julie disappears on a hike in Acadia National Park, Elise is the only one who doesn’t believe --- even after two years --- that she is dead. And when Julie returns, almost the same but fundamentally changed, Elise does her best to ignore the terrible and shocking truth she sees about Julie now.

THE RETURN follows these four friends over the course of a horrific long weekend together at a bizarre and isolated hotel after Julie comes home, having no memories of the past two years. Rachel Harrison’s first book has elements of a mystery, a coming-of-age story and a horror novel.

"Harrison puts much effort into telling readers just who her characters are psychologically, which is mostly compelling.... THE RETURN offers readers some promising ideas and genuine scares..."

Elise’s refusal to believe that Julie is dead is textbook denial. Julie’s return means that Elise has not lost her best friend after all, but it doesn’t mean that things are simple between them. Mae arranges for the four ladies to meet at a funky hotel in the Catskill Mountains to relax and reconnect. She, Molly and Elise agree that they won’t ask Julie about what happened to her. They will respect her assertion that she cannot remember the last two years and how she managed to get home, wearing what she was wearing the day she went missing. Elise is stressed about the cost of the vacation and anxious to see Julie.

It is immediately obvious to Elise and the others that Julie is different. Her skin is sallow and her teeth are horrible, and even her diet has changed. But it is easy to attribute all of this to the trauma she has experienced. Less easy to ignore is the feeling Elise gets from her --- creepy, frightening and possibly physically changing before her eyes. Mae and Molly also sense that something is wrong, yet the three of them try to make the best of the time with Julie and hope to learn more about what she has gone through and how it has affected her. By the time the hotel itself --- awful enough already with its strange noises, overdone rooms and inattentive staff --- seems to respond to Julie’s increasingly distressing appearance and behavior, and when Mae becomes severely ill, it is already too late to stop the terror that is unfolding.

This is a curious book. Harrison puts much effort into telling readers just who her characters are psychologically, which is mostly compelling. However, Elise in particular is an inconsistent figure. That may be less of Harrison’s fault and more about the way characters in similar novels act against their own best interest, unwilling to see evil for what it is. The supernatural elements are piled on heavily at the end, and Harrison is not interested in really explaining the source of Julie’s transformation. There are some eerie scenes, and the Red Honey Hotel is somehow both menacing and comical.

It would miss the mark to categorize this as a horror novel; it is much more about a particular set of friends who experience horror. The four share a kind of banter or repartee that seems a bit young for them, and each of them is definitely of a type. They are love ’em or hate ’em kinds of characters.

THE RETURN offers readers some promising ideas and genuine scares, but ultimately is not as cohesive as it could be. Still, it marks of the debut of a writer with a lot of potential.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on March 27, 2020

The Return
by Rachel Harrison

  • Publication Date: October 6, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction, Horror, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley
  • ISBN-10: 0593098676
  • ISBN-13: 9780593098677