“Before You Knew My Name” is an unusual novel, not quite a murder mystery and certainly not a love story. Alice and Ruby, the two protagonists, are women who arrive in New York City on the same date. Alice arrives by bus from Wisconsin with a stolen camera and money she took from her former high school teacher, who offered her a place to stay when she lost her home, but took advantage of her. Ruby arrives from Australia fleeing a relationship with a man who is engaged to another woman and who has no plans to leave that woman for Ruby. Both women hope that in New York City, they will discover who they are capable of being and thus find a future.
Unfortunately, as we know from the very start, Alice will die. The story is narrated from her posthumous first person point of view, but that’s not to say that Ruby’s thoughts and feelings aren’t shared as well. We come to understand that both women are fundamentally flawed, and we feel empathy for both of them. Each woman was used by a man they trusted, and each arrives in NYC with the plan to work on a brighter future. Only one will get to realize that future, as Alice is killed while jogging early one morning. Ruby is also a runner, and she is the one who finds Alice’s body one morning while she is out running.
For much of the story, we are the only ones who know the identity of the young dead woman. Alice reflects that it bothers her when authorities call her “Jane,” because they don’t know her real name. Ruby is troubled by her macabre find and returns often to visit the spot where Alice was murdered. She wonders who the victim was and why she was killed. She searches out explanations and meets people who have connections with death either because they themselves narrowly escaped death or because of the death of a loved one. Several of the people she meets become a support group for Ruby.
Because Alice is narrating much of the story, we learn a lot about her “before,” and we learn about Noah, the kind, much older man who took her into his apartment in NYC. He helped her and they became friends, almost family. Noah wanted to help Alice see a brighter tomorrow and encouraged her to use her purloined camera to take photos and perhaps even study photography. And that’s just what she was doing when she died.
We don’t know who killed Alice, and while we do learn who the killer is at the end, Bublitz’s story is more about women and the fragility of our lives rather than a murder mystery. How there are men who will use women, taking it for granted that a woman’s body is a possession, to be used as desired, but with no obligations beyond that possessory act. Both Alice and Ruby know that feeling of being used all too well.
Bublitz also points out something called “missing white women syndrome,” which name was coined to demonstrate that the media pays a lot of attention to the abduction or murder of young, attractive, middle class white women like Alice versus women who are not white or who are older or senior citizens. The obsession with young white women being targeted, as opposed to women of color, is historical. Thousands of indigenous women go missing, and there’s no hue and outcry; in fact, there is an acronym for missing and murdered indigenous women: MMIW. Black women are murdered and the press is almost entirely silent. But Gabby Petito goes missing and there is a world-wide outcry and search for her.
The murderer is finally unmasked, and he is not a monster—at least he doesn’t appear to be. And that’s one of the take-aways from this sad story, that the monsters who used both Alice and Ruby, and the ultimate monster who took Alice’s life, don’t look like horrible people. The ugliness of males who use and abuse women often lies within.
The story is filled with sadness and loss. Alice’s life, what might have been, is over. Yet we see a possible future for Ruby that will be better. Because of Alice, Ruby has found friends and a life in New York City. Ruby might just find her happy-ever-after — or at least some kind of contentment.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.