Two things attracted me to The Passenger: Lisa Lutz, the author of the daffy, emotionally complicated and entertaining Spellman Files series (review of the first), and the description of “a blistering thriller is about a woman who creates and sheds new identities as she crisscrosses the country to escape her past.” Add in “With heart-stopping escapes and devious deceptions, The Passenger is an amazing psychological thriller about defining yourself while you pursue your path to survival” and I was sold. Lutz did a marvelous job with Izzy Spellman as she tried to define herself apart from her eccentric family, so I was excited for a repeat performance.
Alas; almost everything about The Passenger failed to impress, bartender Tanya Dubois most of all. Her husband has fallen to his death on their stairs. Tanya decides to run, sure she’ll be blamed, especially after she tried to move Frank and perform CPR. At that point in the story, her logic doesn’t make sense. While she and Frank most certainly did not have a happy relationship, it seems unlikely she would be suspected of being a murder, regardless of moving him or not. She takes off with all the money she can withdraw from a few ATMs and lands in a motel. She calls the mysterious Mr. Oliver for a new identity and promises never to be seen again. Eventually, she lands in Austin, Texas where she meets the mysterious Blue tending a bar. Blue sees right through her disguise and proposes a sort of alliance, although Tanya gets the feeling she may be getting more than she bargained for from Blue.
Despite “trying on” new identities, Tanya remains almost characterless. She’s generally fearful, relies on bars when she wants to socialize (despite being aware she needs to adopt new likes and dislikes), and has almost no idea of what she wants to do. I expected a certain level of this amorphous indecision, but it doesn’t improve as it goes on. Lutz makes a deal about Tanya trying out names, thinking about identities, changing hair color and even weight, but doesn’t actually delve into developing her personality. What does she consider fun? What does she do besides watch other people and search the internet for updates? I have very little sense of hobbies, activities, even color preference When Tanya lands a new life in Recluse, things aren’t different. Bar to socialize. Library to check the internet. I–and Tanya–had a defining moment when someone tells her “You’re just a shell. You seem empty inside, as if your personality has been hijacked.”
As she takes on new names, the reader gets a few tidbits of personal history; her alcoholic mother, her absent father. A mysterious person she emails, and who calls her by another name. The emails should add insight, but are so cryptic as to be almost meaningless; it’s clear there is estrangement and the push-pull of a lost or distant affection. Each identity or living situation is compromised, and as her situation becomes more critical, Tanya’s actions become increasingly dubious. Yet, it is impossible to feel sympathy for her because of her short-sighted planning, her minimal initiative and her consistently dumb impulses. I also had trouble believing how easily she slid into criminality–stealing identities, wallets, lives. I think one needs to be more desperate or more sociopathic to pull this off, and I didn’t see how Tanya fit either category. I think Lutz made a critical error in structuring the story; perhaps learning more about a critical event in her life would have created more sympathy for Tanya earlier in the story.
I wouldn’t really call this a ‘mystery;’ the most significant mystery is the early event, and clearly Tanya knows what happened even if the reader doesn’t. Tanya isn’t trying to figure anything out but how to survive. I definitely wouldn’t call this ‘thriller,’ since it is rarely clear that Tanya is being pursued. This book feels squarely ‘lit-fic,’ of the character seeks new identity school of plotting. I was more than willing to try it because of Lutz, but unfortunately she didn’t bring any of her real character skills to the table. Time to go re-read about Izzy Spellman.
many thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for an advance review copy.