‘Someone Else’s Life’ by Lyn Liao Butler is a chilling story of family and loss

Lyn Liao Butler’s newest novel is a thriller, and she provides carefully curated clues to help us figure out what is really going on. The ambiguity of some of the narrative is purposefully confusing, but she clearly creates a main character who is filled with sadness and self-doubt and who is trying to overcome recent loss in her life.

In some ways, this story feels like it’s partly based on Butler’s own life. Like Annie Lin, the main character, Butler’s family is from Taiwan. Like Annie, she is from New York and married to a New York fireman. They have one son. Like Annie, Butler loves dogs and fosters dachshunds through a local rescue. Like Annie, Butler loves Hawaii and actually moved there to write this novel.

But the fictional Annie moved to Hawaii with her husband and son to get away from New York after the death of her mother, her beloved dog, and the collapse of her dance studio. Her father and sister had moved to Kauai, so she followed with her family. Her husband got a job, but she is struggling with her mental health and unable to move forward from not only her recent losses, but an unsettling event that involved her son. Although her husband and friends encourage her to get therapy after her recent trauma, the Taiwanese side of her family shuns any suggestion of mental health problems, viewing that as a sign of weakness. So Annie struggles alone, taking sleeping pills to sleep and drinking too much wine to supplement the medication she takes for her panic attacks. The end result is that she feels woozy and thinks she has a hard time remembering things.

During a terrible storm, when Annie is alone in the guest house behind her father’s house, a stranger knocks at the door. The woman seems harmless and claims that her car broke down and she needs a place to stay until the storm passes. Annie’s son, Finn, is at the main house with her sister and her father, so Annie invites the stranger, Serena, in. As time passes, the women talk and share a bottle of wine, and Annie feels a connection with the woman who is sharing so much of her own tragic past. Yet there are signs that something is off. Serena seems to know more about Annie than she should.

Annie in insecure about her mental status, so she doubts herself. Is she forgetting what she told Serena? She has been forgetful recently and lost many items that have reappeared since they moved to Hawaii. Gardening gloves that went missing in New York and reappeared in a box. Her favorite sunglasses that appeared on her dresser that very afternoon which had been missing for weeks. We, of course, immediately suspect Serena, but Annie is filled with insecurity and doubt. She feels that her competence as a mother is in question since she let Finn be cared for by a teenage babysitter who fell and died while watching Finn. Finn says a strange woman tried to kidnap him.

As Serena grows more and more comfortable with Annie, and as the bottles of wine empty, she lets clues drop about the real purpose of her visit. And Annie comes to realize some truths that she had not wanted to face. Truths about her son, truths about her family, and even truths about herself. Annie is alone. Her husband cannot get to her because of the storm. Is Annie strong enough to stand up for herself and her family?

The ending is perfect as Butler demonstrates what we know—your family is what you make of those around you. And love can be there even when it’s not prominently displayed; you just have to trust that it’s there. And dogs? Well, Butler knows as much as anyone that dogs make everything better. Especially rescue dogs.

The themes here and the questions Butler raises would make this a great book club choice. I can foresee many wine bottles emptied while discussing these issues about family and trust.

This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.

Please note: This review is based on the final, paperback novel provided by Thomas & Mercer, the publisher, for review purposes.