“Every marriage has its secrets,” and Aaron Decker discovers his are no exception. He always knew his wife Allison possessed a darkness to her, but not until a horrific event does Aaron realize how deep her secrets ran. Author Ronald Malfi’s storytelling abilities create an immersive narrative that starts with marital grief and leads to the discovery of an unsolved multi-murder dating back decades. A mixture of small-town mystery, an allusive serial killer, a local urban legend, and the haunting presence left behind by the sudden departure of a loved one, COME WITH ME provides the reader an emotional and layered thriller that might be Malfi’s best book yet.
Malfi presents COME WITH ME in a second-person narrative as Aaron addresses a plan to his recently dead wife. After an innocent outing to the mall, Allison’s path crosses with a delusional gunman. Never wanting to let violence win, she confronts the shooter, which heroically gives others time to flee, but unfortunately ends Allison’s life. Malfi expertly writes about Aaron’s emotions and brings light to a unique type of bereavement. The widower experiences grief and an unfamiliar feeling of aloneness while his loss becomes plastered all over the news. Aaron cannot mourn in solitude because (at least for a few weeks) Allison’s face appears on every channel and everyone in America knows he lost his wife and wants him to talk about it on camera. And because this is America, the world quickly forgets about Aaron because “tragedies roll along on a conveyor belt with alacrity. One is boxed up and shipped out just as another arrives, shiny and new, on the showroom floor.”
Despite the story starting with a realistic disaster that always leaves people asking “Why?”, the mystery aspect of the novel does not come from Allison’s death, but from the hidden part of her life that she kept from her husband, and everyone close to her. When sorting through his wife’s items, Aaron discovers a locked chest. Now a lock can serve as a way to keep something safe. Or to keep something hidden. When Aaron becomes faced with the decision to open or to ignore the chest, the widower creates two versions of himself. The book does not take quite the level of an alternative timeline as Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, but Aaron does develop a minor form of dissociative disorder as he relies on Other-Aaron to take charge as he falls into a long history of murdered girls. COME WITH ME touches quite a bit on how trivial decisions, while insignificant at the time, become major turning points in an individual’s life. Taking one route over the other creates two different storylines: one which is a reality, and one which can only exist as a ‘What if” scenario. Choosing to stay home instead of accompanying his wife to her death or deciding to keep her secrets instead of burning them both serve as catalysts in the life of the surviving spouse.
Aaron serves as our guide through his feelings and his late wife’s unfulfilled mission for justice, but for a character we only meet through flashbacks, Allison remains at the heart of every page. Malfi runs us through an array of emotions as our impressions and loyalties for Allison continually oscillate between development and destruction as the story progresses. Losing a loved one creates a staggering amount of grief, but when the dead leave before resolving a mystery, more than memories haunt those left behind. Malfi plays with the concepts of ‘ghosts’ as both memories and the present day reveal supernatural happenings for Aaron. If once dead “you could go anywhere, uninhibited by space and time,” could you ever be sure who is haunting you?
While Malfi skillfully captures Aaron’s struggle with losing a loved one to a mass shooting, the author’s insight sadly comes from a similar tragedy. In 2018, Malfi’s close friend Wendi Winters confronted a gunman at her place of work and, much like Allison, Wendy helped others escape but sacrificed herself in the process. Compiling the emotions from his grief and their friendship, Malfi found a therapeutic outlet in writing which allows him to take one last journey with his friend and bring us an enthralling mystery in the process.
COME WITH ME by Ronald Malfi will be published by Titan Books on July 20, 2021.