Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Witness by Nora Roberts

The Witness (2012)
Nora Roberts
Grade: B+
Genre: romantic suspense
Sex scenes: mild
Source: library

I generally try to read NR's new releases when they come out, but I haven't read the last three or four newest romantic suspenses. Not sure why, but I've tended to steer towards the contemporaries and In Death books in preference to the romantic suspenses. When I saw The Witness at the library, I knew that if I didn’t grab it then and there, the waiting list would be a mile long by the time I decided I wanted to read it.

Abigail Lowery didn't always go by that name. She's had numerous aliases since the day of her seventeenth birthday and has been on the run ever since. Abigail was born Elizabeth Fitch and at sixteen years old, she finally decided she was long overdue her teenage rebellion. Dr Susan Fitch is not your regular, loving parent and not used to being disobeyed. Elizabeth was conceived by donor after extensive research into the health, intellect, family history etc of possible donors and Elizabeth's own life has been similarly monitored and controlled. Her mother dictates what she eats, what she wears and her future career path as well as everything else in between. Elizabeth is exceptionally bright with an eidetic memory (more commonly known as photographic, though this description is inaccurate) and has already completed pre-med at Harvard and will be starting her med programme come September.

When Dr Fitch tells Elizabeth that she can't have the two weeks holiday she promised but will instead be undertaking an intense lab research programme to help increase her experience, Elizabeth decides that that's the final straw. She only studied pre-med because it was what her mother ordered her to do; Elizabeth's passion is computers and technology and her greatest desire is to work in the FBI on cyber-crimes. While her mother is away at a conference, Elizabeth takes charge of her life for once and all. After cutting and dying her hair, she bumps into an old schoolmate at the mall. Julie is a year older than Elizabeth and everything that Elizabeth isn't: pretty, popular, independent and most-importantly, socially savvy. Julie has just broken up with her boyfriend and wants to forget her worries by getting into Warehouse 12, the hottest new club in town. Elizabeth has the computer skills to forge fake IDs for the pair of them, if Julie will help her get the right clothes and makeup to fit in.

At the time, Elizabeth thought her night out at Warehouse 12 was the best night of her life. She gets to mingle with those of her own age (ish), discovers she's a natural on the dance floor and comes to love the Cosmopolitans that Julie introduces her to. The girls are quickly approached by Alexi and Ilya Volkov, the two hottest guys in the place who also happen to own and run the club. Elizabeth had done some research beforehand and knows that the owners had links to the Russian mafia. Julie is insistent that they leave for Alexi's house. Elizabeth reluctantly agrees; she's had too much to drink, doesn't want to lose her new friend and the way that Ilya kissed her makes her knees go weak. Ilya has to stay behind but promises to catch up later. You know it'll never end well. By the time that they reach Alexi's house, Elizabeth feels ill and is no longer thinking that this was such a good idea after all. She falls asleep on the porch and is woken by the sound of voices inside the house. Two men have Alexi on his knees and her Russian isn't brilliant, but she can gather that he's been siphoning off money from his Uncle. Then she witnesses Alexi and Julie shot in cold blood and she suddenly can't run fast enough.

Elizabeth gets put in a Witness Protection programme and for several months, is the happiest and most content she's ever been, despite being under constant guard by US Marshals. The Marshals and FBI have been after the Volkovs for years but have never been able to get their hands on any solid evidence; Elizabeth's eidetic memory will be monumental in bringing them down and for this the Volkovs want her dead. When her location is leaked, she does the only thing she can: run.

Twelve years later and Abigail is still as vigilant as ever about her identity and security. She's now a freelance computer programmer and works from home in Arkansas with only her dog Bert for company. She's lived on the outskirts of Bickford, Arkansas for a year, but purposely stays away from the town and avoids its inhabitants like the plague. Brooks Gleason won't take no for an answer. After spending some time in Little Rock, he returned home when his father became ill and is now the Chief of Police. He's intrigued by Abigail and knows that she's harbouring some big secrets that she's running away from. He'd like nothing better than for Abigail to share her past with him so he can help her, but knows that when she's ready, he’ll be with her every step of the way.

I really loved this book and its characters. It was slow to get to the main action and to be honest, the main action wasn't really that major, but it was a good and easy read. As always with NR, the characters really made this book.

I prefer the name Liz to Abigail but each name represents a different phase of her life and so I’ll be using the different names to differentiate these phases. She's an awesome character. Her mother is a complete bitch, so it's a testament to her own strength and determination that she's managed to make something akin to normal for herself considering her dysfunctional upbringing and the trauma she went through. Mother and daughter haven't had any contact since the day that Dr Fitch abandoned Liz in the safe house; for Dr Fitch, her career is number one. People like her don’t deserve to have children and if they do, I can imagine that very few turn out as awesomely as Liz has done.

The Witness is rather slow going. I love the first part where we’re introduced to Liz as a teenager and the detail is needed because we need to get to grips with her relationship with her mother, see through her rebellion, the short-lived friendship with Julie, the disastrous night at Warehouse 12 and lastly her time at the safe house. The safe house is possibly my favourite part of the whole novel. For her whole life, Liz has been secluded from other people and prevented from conducting a normal life. For the first time, she has no one directing her activities or menu or timetable and can fully relax and make her own choices; being Liz, she chooses to study in her free time. Though US Marshals John Barrow and Terry Norton have only been part of her life for that short summer, they become like surrogate parents to Liz. She’s never been loved so easily or unconditionally and it just makes me smile to see Liz treated like a normal teenager for once in her life. She's confined to the house, but she's never known such freedom.

I think part of my attachment to Liz is the similarities that I see with Bones (or Temperance Brennan) from Bones. I’ve espoused elsewhere my love for the show and this mostly stems from (a) my love for the protagonist and (b) David Boreanaz’s hotness. For those of you unfamiliar with Bones, Brennan (played by Emily Deschanel) is a forensic anthropologist at the Jeffersonian Institute. Her job mainly requires her to identify thousand-year-old remains but she has increasingly found herself working with Special Agent Seeley Booth (Boreanaz) of the FBI on more recently killed bodies. Both Liz and Brennan are exceptionally intelligent and experts in their chosen fields. Both experienced some sort of trauma as a teenager that has affected big decisions in their future. Neither (and I’m talking about Liz as a teen here, not Abigail) is particularly socially adept and both lack general knowledge of pop culture. While Liz takes steps to remedy this last point through reruns of Buffy in the safe house and later on as Abigail, Brennan remains ignorant about much of what I take for granted about celebrity gossip, films, current news etc. They both have a very direct, literal and blunt way of talking which I love; it’s very scientific and doesn’t bother with social graces. Bones is a lot more stubborn than Abigail about change, but I guess that’s mostly because of the different formats that they’re presented to the reader/viewer in. Abigail’s story and transformation has to take place in one book; we’ve had seven seasons to watch Bones grow and evolve as a character and she’s still changing. I hope we’ll get to see Bones become as open as Abigail has.

Pets that are done well really make a book (Kiss an Angel’s elephants and other assorted animals, In Death's Galahad, Mr Impossible’s Marigold the Mongoose etc) and The Witness is no exception. Bert the dog is probably my favourite character in the entire book - you can’t not love him. His complete and utter devotion to Abigail is unbelievably sweet and exactly what she needs in her paranoid, solitary life. Her time in the safe house taught her that she can’t trust anyone – not even law enforcement – and so she needs to be able to rely on herself. Bert is Abigail’s personal bodyguard and can attack a nemesis at her slightest command. He is constantly on alert and looks out for Abigail before himself; he’s highly intelligent, able to understand commands in French, German and Farsi as well as English – Brooks should be worried. Hell, the dog weighs more than I do – I’d be terrified.

“Is he going to rip my throat out if I walk over there?”
“Not unless I tell him to.”
“I’d appreciate it if you’d not.”

Classic NR humour.

Abigail's hacking skills are something to behold. I'm no genius when it comes to computers – my laptop is currently giving me heart-breaking grief – and so whenever we see Abigail doing her work designing security systems or hacking into the bank and email accounts of the Volkovs, or watch Roarke accessing classified information in his secret room in the In Death series, I always feel a little envious and very out of my depth. I like to be able to do things for myself and do them well; my knowledge of computers pretty good for everyday stuff and I did do a full course ICT GCSE and built a database for my final project, but when it comes to the proper technical stuff, I don’t have a clue where to start.

I feel somewhat protective over Abigail – I can’t really explain it. You can’t help but feel sorry for her during the first part of the book. She’s didn’t have a childhood and her experience of family life until she met John and Terry was as cold and sterile as the operating tables that her mum worked on. For twelve years, she’s been frightened of being found by the Volkovs and has used Bert, her secluded location and her security expertise to protect herself from the outside world. John and Terry do great things for Liz’s confidence and I love them for that. She hasn’t been permitted an easy life and so when you can see that only Brooks can breach the wall she’s erected around herself, all my instincts screamed their support for him. It’s like she’s finally reached that final stage of adulthood and so we as the reader can stop worrying for her safety and well-being and stop feeling sorry for her; she’s finally got everything she needs and can get on with her life properly.

Brooks was great. Persistent, patient, kind, thorough and hot, he was able to show Abigail and Liz that not all cops are corrupt and it’s not dangerous for her to let people in. He slowly wormed himself into her life and showed her that he can be trusted and she doesn’t have to be so self-sufficient if she doesn’t want to be. As Abigail begins to soften towards him, so does Bert and it’s really beautiful to watch. Someone mentioned on a Shelfari thread that perhaps Brooks is a little too perfect and I can’t help but agree which is a real shame because an imperfection would really make him perfect.

Bert’s mum is great. She changed her name to Sunshine – but is generally known as Sunny – and was part of the wave of hippies who moved into Bickford over thirty years ago and never left. She’s an artist and the exterior of their house is a testament to Sunny’s love for mythological, fantastical and magical creatures. You can see where Brooks gets his persistence and patience and Sunny simply pushes herself into Abigail’s life, huckleberry pie in hand and acts as if she’d been there all her life. This bombard-Abigail parade is a reminder of that time she had with John and Terry and shows her that not everyone is out to get her and she doesn’t have to be alone if she doesn’t want to.

I was very surprised by the epilogue because NR isn’t really an epilogue-type person. When I read it, I swear I thought it was the only ever NR-epilogue that I had ever read, but a cursory glance of a number of the NR books on my shelf show that while the majority of her books don’t have epilogues (these are clearly the only ones that I am remembering), Red Lily and Nightshade are the two that do. I’ve generally expected not to expect an epilogue from NR and so I was pleasantly surprised when there was one. Again, a bit of an anti-climax. Sweet, but the main plot didn’t have enough BOOM to justify an epilogue. Yes, it added to Abigail’s overall contentment and rounded off the end of the first phase of her life and made the start to the new Abigail all lovely and perfect, but IMO, the book could have gone without and I wouldn’t have minded.

I would have liked a bigger confrontation with the Volkovs to really spice up the plot in The Witness. I think I’m thinking too much along In Death lines where we would have seen such action take place between Eve and the baddie, and so that’s probably the reason for my disappointment. The nature of Abigail’s job and the revenge she planned means that the action was mostly behind-the-scenes and unphysical, but justified in the circumstances. For all of her prowess with guns plus with her own arsenal at hand, this form of revenge makes it much more personal to Abigail and thus that bit more satisfying. I’m glad that she’s finally got closure.

I’d definitely come back and read The Witness again. As I’ve already mentioned, the characters are the best thing about this book and I really found myself caring for Liz/Abigail like I would someone close to me. The dialogue was fantastic and Bert is one of my favourite pets in all the romance books I’ve read. I’ve found myself disliking most of the recent In Death books for some reason or the other; I’m glad that The Witness did not join them in my ‘disappointments’ pile.

Image courtesy of  bookdepository


  1. I seem to be coming across very mixed thoughts on Nora Roberts’ latest book; although all seem to have enjoyed it, some have said it’s not as good as her early work, while others say it’s a must. My mom regularly listens to a book show called “The Book Report” and she mentioned that it was on last week's show. I went to check it out on their website (bookreportradio(dot)com) and was rather pleased to see they have archived recordings of all their shows, so I could take a listen for myself. I did have to listen to most of the show, highlighting other books too, before they got to The Witness (though not a bad thing, as 11th Hour and Gone Girl also caught my attention), but was pleased I did…it’s a definite on my books to read this summer list! Thanks for the added recommendation!
    Oh, and I must add-the narration from the audio book excerpt sounded really good (and I'm not a huge fan of audio books).

    1. It's not as good as some of her earlier works, but IMO, The Witness is better than some of her more recent contemporary works. Her romantic suspenses are generally quite strong but as I've said in the review, I haven't read most of the more recent ones. It's not one of my absolute favourites, but it's definitely almost there.

      I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!