What Happened to Nina?: A Thriller

Image of What Happened to Nina?: A Thriller
Release Date: 
March 26, 2024
William Morrow
Reviewed by: 

This book answers its own question pretty early on. As soon as you realize the story is based on the 2021 murder of Gabrielle Petito* by her “vanlife” partner Christopher Laundrie, you know it’s not going to end happily. Nina Fraser (stunningly beautiful, just like Petito) is not going to reappear for the sequel; in fact, she’s only “alive” in the prologue, as she works up the courage to tell long-time boyfriend, the rich, entitled Simon Jordan, that she wants to call it quits.

Dervla McTiernan is an Irish writer, trained as a lawyer and now residing in Australia. The real protagonists of her very accomplished novel are not Nina and Simon but their parents. Leanne Fraser operates the Black Friar Inn in Vermont where Nina, now a college student, was required to do a round of chores by her driven mother. Her less tightly wound husband, Andy, is a local landscaper. Botoxed Jamie is married (with a pre-nup) to aggressive hyper-achiever Rory Jordan, and is convinced he’s planning to leave her for a trophy wife.  

And then, while the young people are still home at the end of the summer, Nina disappears. Simon says they decided to break up during a week at his parents’ summer house in Stowe. He left, and she was going to be picked up by a friend, but that’s where the trail ends and the misinformation begins.

McTiernan tells her story in alternating chapters from each parent’s point of view, with added input from a perceptive police detective. It’s very effective, and virtually none of them are totally reliable narrators. Leanne is almost instantly driven to near-insanity, not only by the uncertainty but by the Jordans’ stonewalling. Andy plays mediator, and tries to spare the couple’s younger daughter.

Boardroom-trained Rory Jordan does what he does—with phalanxes of lawyers, obfuscation on social media, complete disregard for Nina and her parents, and a willingness to go beyond the law to protect Simon. In fact, all the parents in this book are trying to “protect” their kids, with the result that none of them are actually protected. Simon himself, probably the most-opaque character in the book, can barely be persuaded to change his clothes for a lawyer meeting. With Nina missing, the extremely callow youth is texting sports trivia with his friends.

The book is a tragedy, told with an air of inevitability. These characters were always going to play their roles. No one was going to “win.” The book is extremely suspenseful—in the manner of a Lee Child thriller. But a lot of the violence is psychological.

All the characters are nuanced, none more than Simon’s mother Jamie, who is so convinced she’s about to be replaced that by selling her designer clothes she’s saved nearly $2 million in a secret post-divorce fund. She wants to do the right thing, in a vague sort of way, but in not wanting to lose Rory she goes along with his worst excesses. Will it all work out for her? What do you think?

McTiernan may be an Irish woman living in Australia, but you’d never know it from the assured sense of place in this thriller, which is her fifth crime novel. Having read one, pursuing the others will be on your agenda.

* August 2021, 22-year-old American woman Gabrielle Venora Petito was killed by her fiancé Brian Christopher Laundrie while they were traveling together on a vanlife journey across the United States. The trip was planned to last for four months and began on July 2, 2021, but Petito disappeared on August 27.