Dear Miss Metropolitan
By Carolyn Ferrell
Henry Holt and Co. — July 2021
ISBN: 9781250793614 — Hardcover — 432 pp.
Fern, Gwin, and Jesenia are three young girls from very different backgrounds, living their lives of unique joys and struggles at home and at school that nonetheless unite them in the transformations of adolescence. They’re also united in a nightmare experience: captives of an abductor they know only as Boss Man, who has stolen them from the streets and placed them in his basement, a chamber of horrors hidden in an unassuming, dilapidated Queens home.
When authorities finally descend upon the home years later and rescue the “Victim Girls”, they discover only two of the missing young girls, now women, and one young baby. Neighbors look on at the scene of police, ambulances, and news vans. They wonder how this could have occurred right next door, without them ever suspecting. Among those is local newspaper advice columnist, Miss Metropolitan, who feels particular guilt for having failed to notice anything amiss right before her journalistic eyes.
As the rescued Fern and Gwin come to terms with their traumatic abuse and experiences of victimhood and unfathomable resilience, they also ponder the fate of Jesenia, who helped keep them strong, alive, during the ordeal – Jesenia who was forced to bear a child of rape. Meanwhile, others associated with the case, its aftermath, and the next generation, deal with the lingering unanswerable mysteries: Why did this happen? How did it happen? How have the survivors been forever changed? What has been lost?
Dear Miss Metropolitan is a fast moving mosaic of a novel, a narrative stitched together from multiple viewpoints, in different formats, jumping around in time between past and future. Chapters are brief, with standard prose or in the form of document clippings, transcripts, even photographs. Points of view can jump from paragraph to paragraph, narration and dialogue bleed together.
One gets the sense that Ferrell employs this stylistic structure in order to depict the elements of such a traumatic crime from many perspectives through time, as the ‘truth’ behind things and the labels used to describe the victims (survivors) of the abduction and abuse evolve. The publisher and many reviews have referred to this stylistic choice as innovative, but it is not really. Authors have been doing this for a long time. I just finished reading Jean Ray’s Malpertuis, a gothic ‘puzzle-box’ of a novel meticulously structured among perspectives to astounding affect. More modern, and far more effective, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film employs a mosaic structure of media not unlike what Ferrell does here with Dear Miss Metroplitan.
The problem with Dear Miss Metropolitan is that it all comes across as a meaningless cacophony; the artistic reason for including multiple perspectives and time jumps drowns out any insights into the larger scale contexts directly from within the crime as a victim/survivor or indirectly from viewing it from the outside as voyeur, from living it and knowing one’s past or from seeing it only second-hand after the fact. Ferrell fails to hit all the themes and perspectives adequately, and confuses what is there and done well with misapplied structural artifice.
Dear Miss Metropolitan would work far more effectively by limiting aspirations and focus to the girls: their past, their ordeals, their strength, and their bravely facing the aftermath. Time jumps and perspective jumps would have even still worked fine. The mistake was to then also try and look at the outsider perspectives and needlessly use fragments from media text or photos. The majority of the novel indeed focuses just on the girls. The titular Miss Metropolitan doesn’t even really appear until almost the close of the novel, and her inclusion becomes far too little, too late.
This is a difficult novel to read due to the nature of its plot, a thriller based on real life horrors of the Ariel Castro case in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s a plot that also comes up frequently in horror fiction and crime thrillers. To Ferrell’s credit she does succeed in making this somewhat fresh, at looking at the themes of victimhood, survivorship, bravery, and guilt. She also does this without ever making the horror seem exploitative. However, she bites off too much to effectively chew by trying to make this a structural puzzle box that also reveals profound insights into multiple perspectives across space and time.