“Love was leaving someone free to destroy your life and stomp on the ruins because you couldn’t bear the thought of ending theirs” is Julia Vann’s epiphany in the final pages of Amanda Panitch’s debut novel Damage Done. Unfortunately, this epiphany arrives too late to rectify or to prevent all the earlier damage. Julia’s unreliability as the narrator is established by her—she is living under an assumed name and is the only living witness to her twin brother’s massacre of eleven classmates and teacher one earlier, but Julia claims amnesia for those twenty-two minutes. The novel opens one year later; as readers we learn about Julia’s past as she chooses to dole out the tidbits, but also through the reports from the brother’s psychologist. As part of a if-you-liked-Gone-Girl-read-this list, as well as telling taglines on both covers, readers should expect twists in this novel, and at least the first one should be obvious early on. It is quickly apparent that Julia is not only an unreliable narrator but also a master manipulator. The depiction of all adults as inept could be explained by the narration technique, but the psychologist’s reports are his own and Dr. Spence comes across as a self-centered doofus. It is difficult to accept that every adult was blinded by the damage done not to see the real damaged one.
IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ ANY SPOILERS, STOP READING HERE!
This book was from the same if-you-like-Gone-Girl list that also suggested Vanished, which I liked partly because that book read like a YA version of Gone Girl. Damage Done takes the twists and the sociopathy to a whole new level, think Gone Girl meets Flowers in the Attic without the happy ending of the V. C. Andrews series. Twist #1–Julia Vann had something to do with the school shooting that her brother committed should be obvious, especially to a reader of psychological thrillers or viewers of any crime show. Twist #2–Julia Vann is more of a sociopath than her brother would be obvious to a more sophisticated reader or lover of Criminal Minds; I expect the textbook/stereotypical warning signs to go above the heads of high school students so that twist will be unexpected for them. Twist #3–Julia Vann and her twin brother have an incestuous relationship was hinted at, but I really didn’t expect the novel to fulfill it. The ick factor was too much for me. And because of all these, I find Julia’s epiphany, quoted in the review, hollow; I don’t buy it.
As an adult reader, I was troubled by Panitch’s inept adults; I could accept the parents being blinded by their grief OR a self-serving psychologist OR a policeman on the take, but not all three. Even the ending suggests that the police have just given up looking for Julia–she is not longer in the top results of a Google search another year later–which does not seem plausible. And no justice is served; Julia, as the unreliable narrator, seems to have become normal, but sociopathy doesn’t go away. I couldn’t decide if Panitch wants us to assume that Julia will be captured when she begins stalking people in New York, or if Panitch really wrote Julia as reformed after her epiphany.
I had wanted to add this book to my list of school shooting books, but it’s much more than that. I will keep if with the if-you-liked-Gone-Girl list, but with a caveat that these are not your standard plot twists. Definitely for high school and college-aged students; the incestuous relationship is not for middle grade students.