Title: Missing Clarissa
Author: Ripley Jones
Publisher: Wednesday Books (imprint of Macmillan)
Publication date: March 7, 2023
Recent YAL trends have been following what seems to be a new and nontraditional American pastime of indulging in true crime podcasts. Novels like Sadie (Summers, 2018), I Hope You’re Listening (Ryan, 2020), and A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder (Jackson, 2020) have proved that young people are interested in true crime podcasts as a form of storytelling, as well as an alternate modality of YAL. Missing Clarissa (Jones, 2023) follows in this lineage of YAL featuring true crime podcasts.
To be clear, I am one of these true crime podcast listeners. My podcast diet is, in fact, primarily true crime, supplemented with education case studies, children’s literature discussion, and a very specific podcast about the rise and fall of ancient civilizations. With this said, I am no stranger to the siren-like appeal as a listener to create my own podcast. I think you would be hard-pressed to find any regular podcast listener who hasn’t fooled with the idea of creating our own podcast. Therefore, it makes sense to me that YAL would begin featuring teenagers creating their own podcasts. Given the ease of procuring the necessary technology, and the fact that many teens are familiar with basic editing software, podcasting is not outside of the realm of possibility for many teens in America.
Missing Clarissa (Jones, 2023) deals with two such teen girls. The novel opens in the summer of 1999, in Oreville, Washington. This specific summer was marked by the disappearance of head cheerleader Clarissa Campbell. After being spotted stumbling drunk with makeup smeared from crying at a party, Clarissa simply vanishes without a trace or witness. Twenty years later, high school juniors Blair Johnson and Cameron (called Cam) Muñoz decide to begin a podcast to delve into Clarissa’s disappearance.
Though we are never told that Cam and Blaire are podcast aficionados, they are drawn to this modality of storytelling as their journalism class project. Each chapter of the book, titled as sequential podcast episodes, follows Blair and Cam as they investigate Clarissa’s disappearance by interviewing those closest to Clarissa, and subsequently record their podcast episodes. Each chapter ends with snippets of the interviewee on which the chapter has focused, often describing their relationship with Clarissa. Interviewees include Clarissa’s boyfriend, her best friend, and her mother.
While I don’t have specific complaints about the plot or any characters, I was disappointed in the lack of rural spaces (specifically, the forests of Oreville) acting as a character. So often, the best rural YAL has a setting which functions as a character of sorts, directly affecting the plot and the characters. For example, the novel In the Wild Light (Zentner, 2021) features a rural Tennessee setting so stifling in its small town, rural ways that the story simply cannot be separated from its location. Tennessee becomes a secondary antagonist in some ways, constantly pushing and pulling the characters into action or inaction, lurking in the backgrounds of their thoughts, fears, and hopes. In fact, I read In the Wild Light as a citizen of Tennessee, living half an hour from the Great Smoky Mountains, home to the fictional town of Sawyer, TN, and found myself nodding along to each description, having walked in those woods myself. I knew firsthand that this setting was integral to understanding the characters and their motivations – why they were desperate to leave home while at the same time, desperate to stay.
In comparison, Missing Clarissa fell flat. We are told that Clarissa likely disappeared into the forests which surround Oreville, where we are led to believe that human predators lurk. However, these forests read more like the town park that my suburban hometown lays claim to. Blaire herself describes the forests with the following:
“So, Clarissa disappeared from a party in the woods west of here. If you’ve never been to Oreville, you’re not alone. It’s a small town on the Olympic Peninsula, way out near the edge of the world where the continent drops off into the Pacific Ocean. The summers here are sweet and golden, sandwiched between long, wet gray winters where the sky comes down to meet the treetops. And everywhere out here is forest. The woods where Clarissa disappeared are beautiful, but they’re not what I would call friendly. They’re green and dark even in the middle of the day and so big you feel you can drown in them. And at night…” (Jones, n.p.).
Having never walked in the woods of rural Washington state before, I can’t say whether or not this description is correct, but it doesn’t sound wrong to a layman. And yet, readers are never shown the full terror of the woods, during any time of day or night. The fact that this town is rural is never felt throughout the bones of the novel – the girls never lack for cell service, never need to drive too far for amenities, and never seem to feel the isolation that rural spaces can create. Never do these woods become the source of plot points; in fact, the majority of the novel’s action occurs within people’s homes or the school building. And with regards to these spaces, their rural-ness does not affect them. Plop down the characters in the suburbs of Washington State and most all of the plot could happen in the exact same way.
With all this said, there were elements of the text that I very much appreciated: For example, when Cam speaks with her journalism teacher, a man who covered Clarissa’s disappearance in the months following the event, he asks Cam, “Do you think the case would have gotten so big if she has been somebody else? Somebody less pretty?” and states “I wouldn’t have gotten paid to write about her if she wasn’t a pretty white girl, let’s put it that way” (Jones, n.p.). Both of these quotes are in reference to the idea of Missing White Woman Syndrome, a phenomenon describing the media’s vast interest in missing or murdered white women and simultaneous lack of coverage for missing or murdered BIPOC women. This “syndrome” is intensified by other identity factors, such as the woman’s perceived attractiveness, or her proximity to wealth. In the case of Clarissa, the media attention surrounding her case meets the qualifications of Missing White Woman Syndrome – multiple characters muse over this fact, though none name it explicitly. Interestingly, the adjective most tied to Clarissa in the text is the word “beautiful,” with almost each character interviewed for the podcast mentioning her attractiveness.
The book features a fair amount of intersectional identities, all of which are clearly stated. The girl’s journalism teacher, Mr. Park, is Korean-American and gay. Another student in the journalism class is Pinay, is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and is also a staunch abolitionist. Cam herself has a Mexican-American mother, and identifies as gay; readers see Cam come out of her mother in a scene that is low-key and accepting. Two gay adult characters mention the difficulty of coming out in their rural Washington town in the 90s. I appreciate this clarity with respect to character identity, but felt that a lot of it was wasted potential – again, we are told that things exist or are important, but we do not see many of these identity elements in action.
In all, I think that there is so much potential in the idea behind the novel, and other similar YAL podcast novels have been so successful on the market, that it seems a shame Missing Clarissa may experience similar popularity with such an oversight toward the setting throughout the novel. With sections of the text dedicated to the beauty and danger of their rural forest setting, I had expected a final battle in the trees, human monsters cast in tree shadows, leaves blocking out the sun as the girls bring the truth to light. Yet, I felt let down by an idea which had so much potential and was never used to its full capacity.
Thank you Ripley Jones, NetGalley and Wednesday Books for providing me an ARC of Missing Clarissa in exchange for my honest review.
Jackson, H. (2020). A good girl’s guide to murder. Delacorte Press.
Jones, R. (2023). Missing Clarissa. Wednesday Books.
Ryan, T. (2020). I hope you’re listening. Albert Whitman & Co.
Summers, C. (2018). Sadie. Wednesday Books. Zentner, J. (2020). In the wild light. Ember.
Heather J. Matthews, PhD, is an assistant professor at Salisbury University. Her specialization is in children’s and young adult literature. She is specifically interested in diverse representation within children’s literature.