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Review: Christine Lennon's 'Drifter,' set in Gainesville, a compelling story of the impact of murder

Serial killers often leave an indelible dark smear on the public memory. But their impact on those who knew their victims, the friends and family who survive, can be far worse.

Christine Lennon's first novel, The Drifter, explores that impact with a story that many Floridians will recognize with a shudder. It's based on the horrific killings committed in Gainesville in 1990 by Danny Rolling.

In August of that year, Rolling murdered five college students in their homes, grotesquely mutilating and posing their bodies. The University of Florida campus and the town around it were stricken with fear until he was arrested later that year in Ocala and charged in the crimes. He confessed to several other killings, was convicted in the Gainesville cases and was executed in 2006.

Lennon is a journalist who has worked at W, Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. She lives in Los Angeles with her family now, but she graduated from UF. In this debut novel she captures the university town's character, from ramshackle student apartments and vast auditorium classes to the swampy heat of its summers.

The prologue to The Drifter introduces us in 2010 to Elizabeth, a 40-ish Manhattanite who works for a high-end art auction house and has a loving husband and adorable daughter. But Elizabeth also has terrible nightmares. When she drops her 4-year-old off at preschool, even though "Remi bounds in as if she is on the payroll," Elizabeth can't leave, standing watch miserably on a stoop across the street until the school's director complains to her husband.

The next chapter rolls us back 20 years. Elizabeth is Betsy, finishing up her last semester at UF, slogging predawn to her job at a bagel shop before classes — only daughter of a single mom, she's working her way through school — and partying hard the rest of the time.

Betsy is part of a tight but sometimes tense trio of friends. They met her first week on campus when she jumped into sorority rush, not because she felt much inclined toward it but because her mother pushed her.

Betsy ended up quitting her sorority: "She just began to realize, like waking up from a dream, that she had other ideas. But there, in that bubble of hair spray and tailgates and white BMWs, everyone embraced the status quo, because that's what allowed privileged kids to screw around on their parents' dime."

But two of her sorority sisters are still her best friends. Ginny is both prankster and peacemaker, the girl who can always charm a free order of nachos out of the Taco Bell cashier. She also mediates the fractious relationship between Betsy and Caroline, a tall, elegant blond who is a mean girl's mean girl. She's the one who holds back a new pledge's hair while she pukes after a drinking binge — just so she can tell everybody on sorority row that she held back the girl's hair while she puked, poor thing, and oh dear, isn't she drinking a lot?

Not that Caroline isn't, or that Ginny and Betsy aren't keeping up. Parents about to send their kids off to college might find The Drifter particularly scary, not just because of the serial killer but because Lennon totally nails the kinds of careless behavior that has earned UF its long-standing rep as a party school. (And I say that as someone who has a master's degree from UF.)

Betsy and her friends drink so much booze and smoke, snort and pop so many drugs that I was getting hangovers just reading about it all. Add their sex lives and you have the Bad Choices Olympics.

Most young people survive all that, of course. But one of Betsy's friends doesn't, becoming one of the five victims of a man called Scottie MacRae. The first part of Lennon's novel builds toward that awful event, and the second half follows Betsy as she tries to deal with it.

Just before the murder, she began a relationship with Gavin, who seemed like a slacker but turns out to be just the guy she needs. They flee Gainesville for New York, and Lennon also captures their life there as they work their way up from a crummy studio to a doorman building (partying all the while). They create a pretty good life for their family, but now-Elizabeth still has secrets, and her relationship with the other survivor from the trio has blown up.

No one knows better than she how quickly a life can fall apart, or end. A few moments just steps away from a killer taught her that.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

The Drifter

By Christine Lennon

William Morrow Paperbacks, 384 pages, $14.99

Meet the author

Christine Lennon will discuss and sign her book at 6:30 p.m. March 2 at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.

Coming next week

Lennon's novel is one of a feast of Florida-related books coming up in the next few months; look for a roundup and a review of UF professor Jack E. Davis' The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea in next week's Latitudes.

Review: Christine Lennon's 'Drifter,' set in Gainesville, a compelling story of the impact of murder 02/23/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 22, 2017 3:06pm]
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