‘Jane Doe’ has been on my shelf for a long time. I finally picked it up because I used it as the letter J in my TBR ABC reading challenge and I’m glad that I did. ‘Jane Doe’ was a novel that I revelled in. It was a simple idea delivered with such wit, insight and ruthless resolve that I wanted to cheer. For the most part, it’s the story of rage-fueled vengeance, meticulously planned, wrought with guile and discipline.
Jane is a modern-day Fury, Tisiphone translated into the twenty-first century. Jane, a successful lawyer with a high-powered job in Kuala Lumpur, has set her career aside for a few months to return, incognito, to the Mid-West city where she went to college, to avenge the death of her only friend. She knows who is to blame and she’s going to make him pay.
There’s a lot to like about this book. It’s a thriller that gets you deeply invested in the success of the main character, keeps you guessing about what she intends to do while hoping that she’s successful and then cranks up the tension page by page until it reaches a climax that is worthy of all the build-up.
It’s a book that describes, sometimes with wit and always with disturbing accuracy, how abusive men undermine vulnerable women and how badly even men who are not abusive, behave when they let their erections do their thinking.
I loved this observation by Jane about the reaction of her teacher, a man married to another of her teachers after Jane had sex with him so she could blackmail him into giving her an A without the tedium of doing the homework. Afterwards, her teacher…
…had sobbed with shame and guilt. Afterwards, of course. Always afterwards. Erections and guilt can’t exist in the same plane. One makes way for the other.
What got me invested in Jane as a person rather than just an instrument of righteous vengeance, was her revelations about her background, how she came to label herself as a sociopath and how her dead friend had the gift of connecting her to the human world, helping her to experience it rather than just observe it.
I found Jane’s self-diagnosis a little too absolute. Perhaps it says more about me than about Jane, but I found that most of the time the only thing abnormal about Jane’s behaviour was that it was more rational and more disciplined than most people achieve. Jane is high on insight and low on empathy. She is intelligent, organised, goal-focused and guilt-free. Is she a sociopath? Maybe. What’s important is that she thinks she is and it colours everything in her life.
Jane sees some of her detachment as learned behaviour, acquired as a defence against the emotional volatility of her parents. She says of them:
They love me the way a careless child loves a pet, too much attention one day, absolute neglect the next. The changes in current were too much for me to survive when I was young so my brain learned to ride above them.
‘Riding above them’ meant distancing herself from other people’s emotions. As Jane puts it:
I observe people’s emotions but I rarely participate
Jane’s emotional distance and her insight into people means that she doesn’t follow social norms in her relationship with her family. She says of her parents:
I don’t hate them. I just don’t understand why people feel the need to try over and over with toxic family members. I know who my parents are. They’re not the worst but they’re still awful.
Her attitude to her brother speaks volumes. She says,
I don’t speak to him. I have nothing to say to a redneck asshole who somehow managed to create five children with four women during his brief stints of freedom from incarceration.
These things don’t sound particularly sociopathic or particularly abnormal to me but they did result in Jane being called out as a ‘cold-hearted bitch’ by her family members so often that she wondered if she was a psychopath, doomed to become a serial killer. I can understand her relief when she took a psych class and the lights went on:
That first time I read about sociopaths, I felt filled up with a bright light that was equal parts terror and joy. Finally, finally, I understood. It was scary to know the truth, yes but not nearly as frightening as ignorance. I didn’t feel doubt I didn’t feel guilt and empathy was mostly beyond my grasp…
…Most people like me don’t grow up to be killers. We lie and manipulate and take advantage but usually, that just makes us great at business.
One of the things I liked was that, although Jane’s lack of empathy allows her the space to use her insight to act on her agenda without guilt, she is not without emotions. Her whole quest for vengeance is an expression of deep, overwhelming grief at the loss of the only person she loved and who she knew loved her.
Of course, every good thriller needs a good plot and this one is a doozy. Lots of twists and surprises. A bad guy who has absolutely no redeeming qualities. not even intelligence. Better yet, he’s a Deacon at his father’s money-making church out in the so-white-it-hurts suburbs. Tension that builds and builds as you wonder whether Jane will lose it and give way to a violent urge that she can’t escape the consequences of (and yes, I was concerned about the consequences part, not the violence part – the man deserved whatever Jane decided to do to him – how’s that for a thriller getting under your skin?).
I strongly recommend ‘Jane Doe’ as a feel-good novel with a twist, a wish fulfilment for the ‘Me Too’ generation and an insight into a different way of experiencing the world. Personally, I think we need a few more Jane Does out there to counter-balance the abusive males our society seems to be so inured to.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘Jane Doe’ narrated by Nicol Zanzarella. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.
Victoria Helen Stone is the nom de plume that American romance writer. Victoria Dahl, uses for her darker genre fiction.
The first Victoria Helen Stone book, Evelyn, After (2016) was published when Victoria Dahl had already published twenty-nine romance novels, the last of which, Taking The Heat won the 2016 ALA Reading List Award for romance.
There are five Victoria Helen Stone standalone novels At The Quiet Edge, The Last One Home, Half Past, False Step and Evelyn, After, and the Jane Doe duology Jane Doe, and Problem Child