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Take My Breath Away

Crashing Down by Meg O'Brien
(Mira, $5.99, PG) ISBN 1-55166-516-6
It's difficult to know how to critique the latest novel by suspense author Meg O'Brien. On the one hand, I applaud the courage and honesty she brings to the topic of child sexual abuse, and her willingness to share the fact that the heroine's childhood is based on her own experiences. On the other hand, if judged solely on its merits as a suspense novel, the novel has some weaknesses.

Carrie Holt reluctantly returns to the New Jersey town where she spent her childhood. Now a successful author, she has been asked to speak at a local writers' festival. But Holly Beach holds no fond memories for Carrie. As a child, she was repeatedly sexually molested by a young minister. She never told her alcoholic father or her overworked, depressed mother. Not even her grandmother, the only person who represented safety and love in Carrie's world, knew of her horrible secret. Like many abused children, Carrie turned her anger inward and viewed herself as different, "dirty" and unlovable.

Carrie eventually left Holly Beach with her mother, and then moved far away to San Francisco. Now that she has finally agreed to return, she discovers that she will have to confront the demons from her past. Her molester, Christopher Breen, is now a well-respected television personality who has a weekly children's show based in Holly Beach. Rumors are flying that he is about to be appointed by the President to be director of a new national initiative for children.

When Carrie finds evidence that Breen is still targeting young girls, she realizes she must challenge him and put an end to his actions. But Breen isn't about to let his big chance be ruined by Carrie, and he has some surprising revelations that make her question her own memories of the abuse. More confused than ever, Carrie seeks answers from her beloved grandmother, now a nursing home resident who drifts in and out of reality. Despite her reluctance to reach out to others, Carrie also finds some solace from Nicky D'Amico, a local cop who has his own reasons for distrusting Breen.

From her own first-hand knowledge, Meg O'Brien poignantly describes the adult dynamics of a child sexual abuse survivor. Carrie has distanced herself from her traumatic memories, and she keeps the rest of the world at a distance as well she is a "person twice removed." When events and interactions start bringing the past back to life, she reacts irrationally as her carefully constructed facade comes "crashing down." Although she discovers the full truth about her past, she realizes she has a long way to go and hours of therapy before she is fully recovered. Wisely, the romance with Nicky is kept extremely low-key, with only the possibility of a future intimate relationship hinted at the novel's conclusion.

While I admire O'Brien's courage in tackling such a difficult topic, I don't think the novel works as well on a basic suspense level. There is too much inner turmoil on Carrie's part to keep the story moving, and a subplot regarding politicians who want Breen appointed to the national post at any cost is underdeveloped. There is also an inaccuracy in the plot that does a disservice to the prosecution of sexual abuse. Nicky states that in order to arrest Breen for sexual assault, the perpetrator must either be caught in the act, or the victim must bear physical signs of the assault. In fact, a child's testimony and/or adult corroboration can be enough to convict a child molester; there is often no need to wait until the physical evidence is overwhelming.

It's hard to criticize Crashing Down for being a less than stellar thriller, because its main triumph is the author's ability to confront her own past through her heroine. Like Carrie Holt, I hope that Meg O'Brien has found the peace and happiness that she deserves. Hats off to her for breaking the silence and sharing her experiences in a way that might encourage other women to come forward.

--Susan Scribner

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