If there is one central message to “Sophie Last Seen” it was: grief has no timetable. Or at least, that was the message I took away from this raw tale of a mother’s unrelenting search for her missing daughter. The story focuses on the way grief, and the anxiety riddled feeling of not knowing whether you should mourn someone’s passing or never give up the search, changes people. The way it shapes them and how it can both destroy, and reinvent them. Jesse, at the start of the novel, is nearly destroyed by the lack of answers she has regarding Sophie’s disappearance. She constantly searches, turning herself into an alcoholic and a bit of a hoarder as she believes every little thing she finds is a clue as to what happened to Sophie and where she is. Sophie’s best friend, Star, is nearly crippled by her guilt and the thoughts of what could have happened to her best friend to the point where she is haunted by images of Sophie and turns to self-harm in order to banish the disturbing thoughts and images. Their grief, guilt, and destructive coping mechanisms are incredibly raw and they create a tangible ache in the reader, even if they haven’t experienced what these characters are going through. It’s definitely not a light read, but it is a powerful one.
Obviously, there are some trigger warnings here based on the subject material. If books that contain self-harm and missing children are problematic for you, then be careful reading “Sophie Last Seen” because, well, obviously. Those themes are handled with great care but it is a heavy topic. Personally, I think that’s the book’s greatest strength, that it doesn’t shy away from these harsh realities and shows a family who struggles with their spirited daughter—who bounces from therapist to therapist as her parents wrestle with trying to find a way to help Sophie and understand her better, all while trying to avoid her meltdowns. I loved how Jesse acknowledges how difficult it is to raise such an intense child, but her love for Sophie is just as intense. It’s very sweet and heart-breaking. As someone with a sibling who is just as intense as Sophie, Jesse’s feelings about her child really struck home for me. I loved getting swept up in Jesse’s torment—I know that makes me sound weird and like I need help, but I genuinely love real and damaged characters, and that’s 100% Jesse. I also really loved Star’s character arc and watching her process the guilt she, too, has carried with her for six years. It’s often so easy for adults to forget how intensely children feel loss as well, and I think Star shows what that’s like very well.
There were just some characters that I struggled with connecting to the way that I did with the main characters. The angle with April felt a bit undeveloped, I wasn’t a huge fan of how instantly Jesse and Barnes connected as it came across a bit forced for a lot of his interactions with Jesse (I won’t say more to avoid spoilers). The story focuses so heavily on Jesse and Star’s search for answers or closure about Sophie that when that moment arrives, it’s wrapped rather quickly and with very few answers as to HOW things happened when Sophie went missing and those six years in-between. Which part of me gets as that’s real; sometimes you just don’t get everything you’re hoping to find, but the payoff was rather small given the emotional impact of what Jesse and Star go through. Also, some of Star’s nightmares of Sophie felt more like visions which went more into a kind of paranormal/fantasy aspect that I felt was at odds with the otherwise very tangible portrayals of grief. Same thing with Jesse and Star’s interaction with Sophie’s birds at the end (you’ll know what I mean when you get there). It just felt more like a fantasy dreamscape which I found a bit at odds with the rest of the story, even though I get what the author was trying to accomplish with those scenes.
Jesse’s and Star’s character arcs are great, and showing their grief and how uncomfortable it makes others was something that I think a lot of readers who have experienced something traumatic will appreciate and empathize with. It’s very beautifully done and I so, so appreciate that the characters acknowledge that grief takes many forms, and that you are allowed to grieve for as long as you need to. That message is so powerful and important and I love that Adelstein does not shy away from that, even when her characters grief is self-destructive. It’s what makes Star and Jesse’s character arcs all the more satisfying come the end. If you are looking for an adult contemporary that focuses on heavier topics, then I highly recommend “Sophie Last Seen” despite my minor qualms with some of the scenes and characters (hence the 4 stars). And thanks to the author for providing me with a copy for an honest review.
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