Not Her Daughter: A Novel
The first chapter of Not Her Daughter is taut, intense, gripping—and by the end of its handful of pages, it’s clear the speaker, entrepreneur and CEO Sarah Walker, has taken someone else’s child: Emma Grace, an adorable and smart little girl in a red dress who’s been routinely, casually, physically and emotionally abused by her mother (and ignored by her father). Is there any way this can be right? Has Sarah become a kidnapper, a criminal, a runaway from her own life—for the sake of rescuing a child who reminds her far too clearly of her own abandonment?
Sarah’s probably the last person you’d imagine as a kidnapper. Her loyal and caring employees at her firm, which provides educational materials for schools in the US and abroad, call her “Boss Lady” to her face, and do all they can to make her high-stress, hard-work life a little smoother and sweeter. Her aging dad counts on her support. Her mother—well, she walked out when Sarah was a small child. And Sarah’s boyfriend just took off recently. Traumas, or clarity?
One way or another, Sarah and Emma are on the run. But Emma might not be the classic victim imagined. Consider this moment when Sarah considers Emma’s offer:
“She closes the gap and looks up at me. My hand is still extended. She studies it, arms at her sides. I manage a smile and secure my lips against my teeth. ‘I just want to help you,’ I say.
“I am going to take you away from here.
“She takes another breath. Her whole body balloons and then deflates. She bends the fingers of her left hand, then lifts her right hand toward mine.
“It makes contact. I squeeze and press her hot palm to mine. Our bodies link. Our eyes lock. She nods, and my voice catches in my throat as I begin to pull her away from her mother, her house, and her life.”
Rea Frey lives in Nashville and has a daughter (with her husband). She’s been co-owner of a gym in the past. Her previous books have been nonfiction—on detoxing before pregnancy, vegan eating, cheating boyfriends—and this is her debut in fiction. It’s a high-suspense crime novel, well paced and smoothly written. The ending raises multiple questions, and is a little too rushed to do them justice. Probably the most interesting aspect of Not Her Daughter is the urge to identify with Sarah, who clearly is guilty of a horrifying crime. Of course, from her point of view, she’s a rescuer, taking action that the social welfare system won’t.
Also intriguing are the segments from the point of view of Emma’s mother, the woman who gave birth to her and in most ways hates her. That abuse is real; there are reasons for it, but of course, no possible justification.
Book-club questions wrap up the novel. It could be fascinating to listen to discussions from other women, moms and aunts and grandmothers who’ve imagined saving a child this way. Would you do it?
Rea Frey’s most pointed question may be: Whose daughter is Emma, really?
A note about this unusual author: Frey gave herself an eight-week window to write this book. Not only did she complete it (in a month), but her manuscript ended up in a bidding war among publishers, and she received a two-book contract. So expect another gripping crime novel from her, in a year or so.