Natalee Holloway dominated the news in the early 2000s — a blonde 18-year-old who vanished during a senior class trip to Aruba. Alexis Schaitkin’s debut novel, Saint X, delves into what it means when beautiful, promising young women go missing in foreign lands — and the ripples that emanate out from their disappearances.
Holloway stand-in Alison goes missing during a resort family vacation at a fictional Caribbean island called Saint X. When her body is discovered in a remote cay, two men who work at the resort are arrested — then released when their involvement in her death is ruled out. Alison’s 7-year-old sister Claire then finds herself in a maelstrom of not only grief but national attention as the media picks apart every aspect of her sister’s life: Specifically any evidence that the Princeton student’s reputation was anything less than sterling.
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More than a decade later, and Claire is living and working in New York City when she gets into a cab driven by Clive, one of the men from the resort suspected in Alison’s death. Haunted by her sister’s memory, she starts following the man, eventually befriending the unsuspecting former suspect under her middle name, Emily.
As thrillers go, Saint X is relatively simple when it comes to the plot. We start with a dead girl and a question: “Who killed her?” Still, the novel isn’t quite your airport bookstore pulp (which is extremely fun in its own right). It’s an intriguing mix of literary fiction, thriller and travel literature, putting us not only in the POV of Claire, but also Clive and a menagerie of people who find themselves connected to Alison over the years: an actress who plays her in a TV movie, the couple who finds her body, the mother of Clive’s child, a Yale boy who flirts with Alison on her last night, and so on. Schaitkin spent ample time researching in Anguilla, and her time there gives the book far more dimension than just the story of missing American.
As such, we find ourselves in the minds of characters male and female, black and white — deftly navigating a story that struggles with sexuality, gender, race, and privilege. We even see inside Alison’s head via her cassette tape diary, which Claire devours during a dark period of obsession after being let go from her publishing job; Clive and Alison replace all aspects of her life. Alison’s voice on the tapes is almost painfully real and teenaged as she begins the painful process of becoming an adult — of realizing that she grew up privileged and coddled and figuring out how she fits in a world that’s anything but.
The time difference between Alison’s death and Claire’s run-in with Clive is almost identical to how long Holloway has been missing: roughly 15 years — and Holloway’s disappearance remains a mystery, again demonstrating that real life rarely provides the satisfying conclusions that most thrillers do. If you’re more of a beach read fan, this is perhaps not the book for you — but if you’re looking for something that will stay with you long after the sun goes down on your holiday, Saint X marks the spot.
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