In UNTETHERED, Timmer presents two families that are about to be disrupted something bad.
Char Hawthorn’s husband (Bradley) has died in a car accident, leaving her to care for her husband’s high school-aged daughter, Allie. In the aftermath of the death, questions loom, primarily in the form of Lindy, Allie’s biological mother, who swoops in from California and threatens to take Allie home with her. Though Char never formally adopted Allie, they’ve grown attached to each other. Now though, they realize how precarious their relationship has become. They walk on eggshells around each other, both seemingly afraid that the other will use Lindy’s sudden arrival as an excuse to flee the relationship they’ve forged in the four years that they’ve lived together in the same household.
Morgan Crew is a ten-year-old girl whom Allie tutors on Monday afternoons. Adopted by Sarah and Dave Crew after years of living in foster care situations, she still dreams of living again with her biological mother— a substance abuser who might have abandoned her and who may still be incarcerated. Morgan, blessed with a profoundly overactive imagination, makes up stories about her past and repeatedly suggests that Sarah and Dave view her with disdain. She also self-harms— bruising and cutting herself as a means of ameliorate the pains of having been abandoned by her natural mother.
Besides Morgan, Sarah and Dave have another child—a very sweet but developmentally delayed young boy named Stevie, whom they’ve put into a rigorous speech and occupational therapy program to get him ready for kindergarten. Morgan, too, is in therapy to address her self-harm issues. To pay for these treatments, Dave works incredible overtime hours as an auto mechanic. Sarah seems to be the most fastidious of mothers—constantly cleaning and preening, and one can only imagine the stresses inherent in raising these two children with such demanding needs.
In one of the novel’s most touching scenes, Timmer shows us a flashback moment before Bradley’s death when the Hawthorns invited Morgan to spend the night at their house so Sarah and Dave could take Stevie to an all-day medical assessment. Morgan arrives on the Hawthorn’s doorstep clutching her “Lifebook,” a scrapbook stuffed with pictures of all the foster families she’s shuffled through. Eighteen months have passed since Dave and Sarah legally adopted her, yet she still asks “on a regular basis if they were going to keep her.”
One particular picture in her Lifebook captivates Morgan’s attention:
“The photograph, wrinkled and small, showed a young woman reclining in a lawn chair, a cigarette in one hand and a glass in the other. She wore a come-hither expression and a sleeveless dress with a hemline that reached only inches below her hips. Her long, dark hair was twisted into a high, haphazard ponytail. In the bottom right corner was a child of about two, standing, naked except for a diaper.”
The woman in the photograph is Morgan’s mother, and the near-naked child is Morgan.
The two girls—Allie and Morgan—become close friends. Allie, too, is fascinated by her biological mother. Lindy is erratic, dismissive, and self-centered, hardly the person most suited towards raising a teenager.
As Char and Bradley observe in that flashback scene, “no wonder Allie and Morgan bonded so tightly, so quickly—both of them had been abandoned by their birth mothers.”
Because the protagonist in Timmer’s 2014 debut novel, FIVE DAYS LEFT, suffered from Huntington’s Disease, I wrongly assumed Timmer was charting out a Lisa Genova-like writing career for herself whereby each successive novel would examine a different medical condition. Instead, Timmer’s true domain in family. Specifically, adoptive families.
Here, in UNTETHERED, Timmer branches out. When Morgan disappears, Allie sets out to find her, and what follows verges into gripping thriller-esque territory. The writing is tension-packed and the action unpredictable.
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of psychological thrillers, where the antagonists AND protagonists can be downright slimy. One the things which drew me to UNTETHERED is how genuinely sympathetic I felt towards Char, Allie, and Morgan. Mind you, each of these characters are prone to lapses in judgment and, at various times, offer profound misrepresentations of the truth—and yet I still largely trusted them and rooted for them.
Yet UNTETHERED also contains a couple of “wildcard” characters: Lindy and Dave. We’re never quite sure how they’ll respond to the stresses of the novel’s increasingly complicated situations. They’re erratic and—at least in my reading— deliciously untrustworthy. Looking back, I’m struck that they’re the least examined of the major characters in your novel. Which made me think, as a writer, that some correlation exists between the amount of information readers are given about certain characters and the amount of surprise and disappointment these characters are then capable of providing.
Great novels are comprised of characters that don’t do exactly what they’re supposed to do. Right smack in the middle of Allie’s most mischievous act, Lindy calls Char to ask what’s up with her daughter. It’s a moment when, truly, any responsible adult should be truthful, and yet Char concocts a fantastical story to explain why Lindy will be unable to talk to her daughter for many hours.
This was truly a delicious moment. The dramatic consequences of Char’s lie would be far greater than whatever might happen if she told the truth. I’ve tried to pay attention to in the months since I’ve read this novel. To heighten tension, characters need to misbehave. For this lesson alone, I’m grateful for Julie Lawson Timmer. UNTETHERED packs a powerful, heart-wrenching punch, and I’ll be sure to read whatever else Julie Lawson Timmer writes.