‘The Never List’ Never Quite Lives Up to Its Thrilling Potential

Koethi Zan’s The Never List is a psychological thriller that sounds much better than it reads, which is a real shame because Zan’s plot has great potential. There’s a fragile heroine, Sarah Farber, who is slowly putting her life back together after being kidnapped in college along with her best friend, Jennifer.

Both Sarah and Jennifer are ultra-cautious, a byproduct of a car accident when they were both 12 that claimed the life of Jennifer’s mother. Their “never list” (“never trust a stranger with a flat tire,” “never be stranded”) was supposed to keep them safe once they left home, but all their paranoia and preparation doesn’t keep them from getting abducted and held captive in a cellar with two other girls for several years. All four girls are tortured and raped, but only three make it out alive.

The bulk of the novel (Pamela Dorman Books, $28) takes place 10 years later. Sarah lives in New York under an assumed name, with frequent contact from Dr. Simmons, her therapist, and Jim McCordy, an FBI agent assigned to the case. Jack Derber, a college professor from Oregon, is the man responsible for abducting and abusing the girls. He’s spent the last decade behind bars and McCordy wants Sarah to speak at his parole hearing—along with another survivor, Tracey Elwes—to ensure Derber stays in jail.

I don’t know if Zan composed her own “never list” prior to writing the novel. If she had, she forgot to include “never be predictable,” “never write horrible dialogue,” and “never let the plot become too implausible.”

In addition to the basic abduction/survival plot, Zan throws in a questionable religious organization that may be a front for human trafficking. There’s also a seedy BDSM club frequented by Derber and Adele Hinton, Derber’s former research assistant. Hinton is now a tenured professor at the same university that employed Derber, and she supplies Sarah and the other survivors with some much-needed background information.

One of the major flaws in The Never List is the maddening lack of details. I’m not interested in gruesome descriptions of physical abuse, but Zan seems perfectly content with merely teasing the reader and The Never List ends up being too vanilla to raise any goosebumps. The other misstep is allowing characters to make foolish, dangerous choices just to move the plot along. As a result, The Never List reads a lot like one of those schlocky horror films, where the protagonist thinks it’s a good idea to head down into the basement alone while the whole movie theater shouts their objections.

The only real suspense surrounding The Never List is whether Zan will make the same mistakes with her next novel. ★★★✩✩

Stay cool with “Bookini,” our poolside reading series by M. Scott Krause.

[ book wishes ]

Chosen by Vegas Seven A&E Editor and
book nerd Cindi Moon Reed.

Wit-of-steel essayist, actor and This American Life regular David Rakoff died of cancer in August at age 47. One of his last acts was to publish a novel in verse, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish (Doubleday, $27). Spanning decades and telling the stories of diverse yet interconnected characters, it’s an artistically exciting shift from his best-selling essay collections, including Fraud (2001) and Half Empty (2010). This book looks to be the most fun smart thing you can do all summer. Download it to your phone and read it aloud to your friends the next time you’re all bored poolside.