“One Breath Away,” Heather Gudenkauf’s third novel (“Weight of Silence” and ‘These Things Hidden” are also excellent), is a great modern mystery, taking readers on a terrifying journey to find out just who would walk into a small-town Iowa school and take a classroom hostage.
Gudenkauf’s storytelling style of alternating the narration between characters suits this story well, so that we can experience the hostage experience from all sides—the parents, the teachers, and the police. The only person missing from the circle of narrators is the gunman himself, and for good reason. If he talked, we’d know who he was and why he was there. And mysteries are so much more delicious when you have to wait until the bitter end for the big give. The story pretty much gives equal time to all parties, with maybe just a bit more page time spent on Meg, one of the town’s police officers and first responders, and Augie, one of the children inside the school.
The characters are well developed and plot line well established. I guess I’d like to know a little more as to why Augie and PJ’s mom, Holly, comes across as so damaged. It’s as if there was some childhood experience that hardened her to her dad and small-town living, but I didn’t feel like that was especially well-defined. It’s funny—in reading the standard book club Q&A, there was a question about the snowstorm that enveloped the town during the hostage standoff, and “How did that relate” … and all could think was … “It was snowing? Damn, I just want to know who the crazy guy is!”
The one thing that really did stick out for me? EVERYONE (Well, almost …) is divorced. Holly, Meg, Stuart, the Craggs … in one scene, the gunman frustratingly asks if any kid in the town knows who their father is, whereas I would have asked, “Does anyone stay married around here?” What’s the message? That life is fragile? Relationships are temporary? Broken Branch has a bitchin’ singles scene? Hmmm ….
If you need a quick book for the weekend, the beach, the pool, the car, the plane … this is a great selection. Just know you won’t be able to put it down very easily.
One Breath Away