The Last Act of Hattie Hoffmann by Mindy Mejia
Seventeen-year-old Hattie Hoffman is a talented actress, loved by everyone in her Minnesotan hometown. So when she's found stabbed to death on the opening night of her school play, the tragedy rips through the fabric of the community.
Local sheriff Del Goodman, a good friend of Hattie's dad, vows to find her killer, but the investigation yields more secrets than answers; it turns out Hattie played as many parts offstage as on. Told from three perspectives: Del's, Hattie's high school English teacher and Hattie herself, The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman tells the story of the real Hattie, and what happened that final year of school when she dreamed of leaving her small town behind . . .
The opening paragraph is told by Hattie and I instantly engaged with the description of a young girl trying to run away. How many of us haven't fantasised about leaving our lives behind at some point, about jumping on that train, aeroplane, coach and heading off into the unknown? It's a great start to a book as automatically it triggers a whole number of questions about why this person wants to leave and what are they running away from?
"Running away sucked. Here I was, standing in the exact place I'd daydreamed about it math class so many times, right in front of the departures board at the Minneapolis airport, and every detail was just like I'd pictured."
There's a couple of key words in here though - the details being as she had pictured. Welcome to the world of Hattie Hoffmann - to the last act of Hattie Hoffmann - to the story of Hattie Hoffmann's final year. Hattie Hoffmann who is the leading role in her school play and is a great actress. Hattie Hoffmann who has played so many different roles in her final act that even she has lost sight of what is true and what imagined scenes she playing out.
"Get off the stage sweetheart.....You can't live your life acting for other people."
However, by the end of the first paragraph the only words ringing in my ears are:
"I could go anywhere. Do anything. So why did I feel trapped?"
And she has my sympathy. Well, for now anyway.........
We start with Hattie's narrative which is very effective as the opening chapter raises so many questions about her and her present situation. It ends with a cliffhanger - a threat - which made me turn the page only to be met with the news that she is dead. I wondered what sort of story I was going to be reading and was intrigued. I was also intrigued by the fact that one of the narrators of the story was actually dead. This automatically raises the level of tension when we return to the previous year to see events from her point of view as they lead up to her death.
I think Hattie was my favourite voice. In many ways Del, the sheriff is there to provide the reader with extra detail about the investigation and help us join the dots a bit. His voice is one of experience, one who has seen much of the world, old style and established in the community. He has some great lines like "Look what old fashioned police work turned up", and I liked him. Although he was still as real as Hattie, it was her voice that really felt alive and her energetic voice which I found most engaging.
Hattie's summing up of acting is poignant, mature, perceptive and suggestive of so much more of what is hiding behind this perfect student's eyes.
"Sometimes I think acting is a disease, but I can't say for sure because I don't know what it's like to be healthy."
Mejia captures the voice of a seventeen year old extremely well, that delicate balance between adult and not-an-adult, that balance between thinking they are experienced in the ways of the world and yet still terribly naive.
"Ever since I bought my Motorola this summer she acted like I was carrying Satan in my purse. ......Why couldn't I text my friends and check my forums?"
Hattie's dismissiveness of the fact that the Internet is full of people hiding behind a false identity is subtly ironic and also reflects her youthful arrogance which then starts her journey down a path that changes everything. Online she finds someone, strikes up a conversation with someone, develops a relationship with someone but how well does she really know this person? How much of his real life has he really revealed? And how honest is she about hers? All these questions define Hattie. Who is the real Hattie Hoffmann and does she know what she is doing - is it planned, controlled and thought through or is it confused and wrapped up in fiction? All that is clear is that this relationship that begins on screen that lays the foundations for the tragedy of her final act.
The third narrator, Peter, is an interesting character, one for whom my sympathy transferred backwards and forwards several times. His chapters offer a lot of insight, pertinent observations and thought provoking passages that both help the reader to gain a deeper understanding of Hattie's character but also build tension and suspense. Mejia's ability to write from a male perspective is completely convincing and she captures Peter's obsession, loss of control, actions, thoughts and decision very well.
The Last Act of Hattie Hoffmann is absorbing. It's a page turner but not in a conventional way. There are some shocking twists and turns but really this is a character driven book and what makes you turn the page is the chilling and unnerving fascination with the characters and what has happened between them. Hattie is a complex character. She is truly psychologically complex and quite unforgettable.
This is a novel about a teenager, about falling in love, about getting embroiled in events that soon spiral beyond her control. But don't be deceived, it is not just a novel about '"stupid kids" or high school. This is a novel about a small town, about ambitions, dreams, secrets and ultimately murder. This is a crime story, a police procedural, a murder investigation but also it is a deeply psychological tale about power, manipulation and obsession. It is a great read and it is going to haunt many readers long after it has entertained them. The story refers to Macbeth a lot and maybe there is something Shakespearean about this book. Romeo and Juliet, Lady Macbeth, King Lear...... maybe there are aspects of all these stories hiding in the wings while the last act of Hattie Hoffmann plays out on the stage.
It is an evocative novel and Mejia has achieved something very impressive with her first UK novel. I hope there will be more to come from her as I would love to read more.
The Last Act of Hattie Hoffmann is published by Quercus on 9th March 2017.
My name is Mindy Mejia and I’m a writer. I write because, ever since I was six years old, my favorite game has been pretend. My life doesn't have symmetry, theme, symbolism, or meditated beauty and I gravitate toward these things like a houseplant to the sun. I love the perfect words; I love how “fierce” and “confounded” and “swagger” look on the page and how my chest expands when I read them. I write because I believe in the reality of my fantasies, the truth in my fabrications. I’ve always had stories sneaking around my head, thrillers like THE DRAGON KEEPER and EVERYTHING YOU WANT ME TO BE, and sometimes I inhabit those stories more than my own life. (Best not to mention that last part to my husband, kids, or boss.)
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