A mother’s biggest fear fuels new thriller by Joshilyn Jackson

Joshilyn Jackson's latest novel is a domestic thriller called 'Mother May I.'
Courtesy of William Morrow
Joshilyn Jackson's latest novel is a domestic thriller called 'Mother May I.' Courtesy of William Morrow

“Mother May I” starts out with a similar premise to Joshilyn Jackson’s previous domestic thriller, “Never Have I Ever”: A mysterious stranger arrives to pierce the protective bubble of a suburban mom. But this time there’s a lot more at stake than reputation or even a jail sentence. Lives — including that of a precious infant — hang in the balance, and our heroine must navigate a labyrinth of lies, commands and stressed-out terror during a deadly race against time.

Bree Cabbat is living the good life in Decatur, raising two daughters and a newborn son. Money is not a worry because of husband Trey’s job at his family’s law firm. Bree’s daily duties include driving carpools, organizing snacks and choosing dresses for upcoming charity functions. What could go wrong? For a mother, the worst thing imaginable.

One day when her husband is out of town on business, Bree wakes to see what looks like a witch spying into their bedroom window. She later spots the elderly woman in the parking lot of her children’s school. Soon, her infant son goes missing, and Bree is psychologically held captive by a freakish sort of kidnapper: a countrified crone with beady eyes who begins a burner phone dialogue. The woman threatens to harm baby Robert if Bree contacts her husband or law enforcement. A deadly game of blackmail begins, as Bree is forced to navigate an unthinkable game of risks.

Jackson’s female characters are often equipped with interests that make them anything but cookie-cutter. In “The Almost Sisters,” Leia was a graphic novelist who adored superheroes. In “Never Have I Ever,” Amy was an underwater diver. In this story we learn that Bree had been an actor in school and community theater, and she uses this training during her weekend from hell. She’s able to maintain her composure while “playing” her other roles: happy mother, school volunteer, society wife, non-profit board member. And she switches on her hometown drawl when she needs to “bond” with the kidnapper.

Jackson, a former actor herself, captures the mental preparation it takes to slip into different personalities. It’s hard not to imagine a movie scene when tall, gorgeous Bree slinks into a short black cocktail dress and heels, squeezing on an upper-arm bracelet as a physical reminder of the task at hand. She might not naturally be a tough, intimidating person, but she’s a mom on a mission.

Some of the most important scenes in the book take place at distinctive locations around Atlanta. Bree is directed to ambush one of her husband’s co-workers at a law firm event at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, lit up at night for the private function. Winding her way around the verdant pathways, Bree stumbles upon various surprises. The orchid center — claustrophobic in its warm humidity — becomes the backdrop for one such encounter, the dramatic natural beauty of the flowers juxtaposed with enclosed, forbidden secrets.

Another key scene takes place at an abandoned amusement park in North Georgia called Funland because, really, what is creepier? Decrepit carousal animals, broken and threatening, frame a dramatic, gothic encounter. A chase ensues through kudzu and overgrown hidey-holes. Jackson is at her best when describing visual elements: “The bench’s sides were carved into the shape of a stampede of horses. They faced me, too. Their mouths yawped open, and their eyes were wide. As I got close, I saw they were actually unicorns, with faded wreaths of roses around their necks and short spiral horns.”

Class distinctions figure heavily in the story (this is the South, after all). Raised with wealth in Buckhead, Trey approaches life’s bumps with well-oiled ease, tending to brush off the little things with a comfortable chuckle. It’s apparent when the couple first meets at the High Museum, where Trey’s mother has sponsored an exhibit. Wearing a custom suit with no tie, the older (divorced) Trey oozes gentlemanly charm: “He stood like a man who believed he belonged anywhere.”

Bree, on the other hand, hordes her working class, rural upbringing like a cellarful of canned goods — preserving it for when she needs it. An only child, Sabreena Kroger was brought up by a brave, battered woman and taught to beware of those seeking to harm her. (In an act of rebellion, Bree rejects this mentality, only realizing later how right her mother was.) She’s sincere in her love for her family, but at times she feels like an imposter. In contrast to Trey at their first meeting, Bree wears a dress borrowed from a theater costume department.

For strength, Bree channels memories of her best friend Betsy, a fierce policewoman who died in the line of duty five years earlier. Her widow Marshall has become one of the family. Betsy and Trey helped him get a job in security at the law firm and his daughter admission into their family’s private school. Marshall is also hopelessly smitten with Bree, who enlists him to help her save baby Robert. In the process, secrets come to light involving Trey’s college years and the vendetta carried out by the kidnapper.

Longtime readers of Jackson’s who embraced her genre switch from Southern fiction to domestic thriller with “Never Have I Ever” will be glad to see she’s taken things a step grittier and darker with “Mother May I.” Fast-paced and twisty, there’s also redemption and a bit of grace down that debris-filled, winding road.


“Mother May I”

by Joshilyn Jackson

William Morrow

324 pages, $27.99

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