Genre pigeonholing can be useful when potential readers are trying to navigate a bookshop but can act to the detriment of books that don’t quite fit, like Sara Sligar’s debut Take Me Apart. It is tempting to label this as crime fiction (there is a possibly suspicious death that one character is investigating), or perhaps as a psychological thriller (there is some “psychology” here) or a study of mental illness (something both main characters suffer from) or an exposé of sexual politics and exploitation, or an exploration of the world of art and what makes a good artist. The problem with any of these tags is they create expectations about what the book is or what it is supposed to deliver. Take Me Apart does a little bit of all of these things without necessarily delivering any of them completely. Which is only a problem if readers come with expectations of a “psychological thriller” or an exploration of the #MeToo movement.
Journalist Kate Aitken has fled from New York under a cloud to the small town of Callinas, north of San Francisco, to stay with her aunt and uncle. They have managed to get her a short term job as an archivist. Her task is to sort through and put some order to the papers of famous photographer Miranda Brand, who lived in a big house above the town. Miranda died in an apparent suicide in 1993 and now that her husband Jake has also died, her son Theo has come back to Callinas with his two young children for the summer and to settle up the estate. Kate is at first daunted by the task but soon finds herself becoming obsessed with Miranda and her death, particularly after finding a diary which Theo has kept hidden and apart from the rest of the papers. Kate is sure that Miranda was murdered and is determined to find out who the killer is while also finding herself falling for Theo.
Take Me Apart becomes a back and forth between Miranda and Kate’s voices and experiences. Both characters have dealt with or are dealing with sexism and sexual abuse. Both suffer from mental health conditions and find that the drugs they are prescribed to deal with those conditions prevent them from feeling like themselves. Particularly in Miranda’s narrative there are questions about the nature of art – “Art is supposed to upset you… Art is supposed to make you feel afraid” – how it is interpreted and what fuels the creative process. In this respect, Miranda’s narrative is the more fascinating of the two, but it needs the be juxtaposed against Kate’s journey to work effectively.
Readers who go into Take Me Apart looking only for a twisty crime novel or a page-turning thriller or a pure exploration of mental illness are likely to be disappointed. But this is more a problem with the expectation that comes with genre than with any failure to deliver on Sligar’s part. Because what she has delivered in a fascinating, page-turning debut. A dive into the complex world of two women, connected by the impossible expectations that society has put on them, and damaged by their inability to meet or manage those expectations.