The Plot: Jamie, seventeen, is spending her summer as an au pair at ritzy Little Bly, Rhode Island, taking care of eleven year old Isa McRae while Isa’s dad works in Hong Kong. The only other person in the large beachfront estate is the housekeeper, Connie, a disapproving local woman.
It turns out, there are things Jamie wasn’t told about Isa and the McRaes. There’s an older brother, Milo, fourteen, who turns up unexpectedly, spoiled and handsome. Then there’s Jessie, last year’s au pair, a free spirited girl who Isa adored. Jessie, who along with her boyfriend, Peter, died in a plane crash the year before.
Even creepier, it turns out that Jamie looks like Jessie. Jamie is seeing the ghosts of the two lovers, and is somehow drawn into the echoes of the drama, heartache, and betrayals of the year before. But is she really seeing Jessie and Peter? Or is something else going on?
The Good: Tighter creeped me out. In a good way. In a this is how I like to be scared way.
Jamie may not have been told everything about her summer job and the previous summer’s tragedy, but she has a few secrets of her own. While running track, she suffered a back injury (a major lower lumbar sprain) and has been self-medicating ever since by raiding the medicine cabinets of her parents and siblings. Jamie has brought along fifty-odd pills for the summer, hoping they’ll ease the aches and help her sleep. But, the reader wonders, is that all it is? Especially after Jamie shares with the reader that two relatives who killed themselves “had started to appear to me, claiming me in secret hours as one of their own. My eyes would open into darkness — not in terror, not yet — to find them right there, in my room. The rope skewed around Uncle Jim’s neck and Hank staring blankly, the bullet wound black as a cigarette burn at his temple. And then I’d wake up for real, in a gasp, my heart beating fast as rain, my newly identified lumbar muscles — extensor, flexor, oblique — pulsing the nerve roots of my spine. By then, they’d be gone.”
When Jamie starts seeing the ghosts of Jessie and Peter, when she starts sensing the anger and jealousy Pete, one of the working class locals, felt for Jessie and her fellow rich summer residents, is Jamie seeing ghosts? Or is it the pills and the pain and her imagination? Jamie sees more and more evidence of Pete’s dark nature, and begins to believe that it has permanently impacted Isa and Milo. Is Milo somehow channelling the dead teen? The suspense builds, especially as Jamie becomes more and more obsessed with the dead teens and her actions become more and more erratic.
In case you haven’t guessed, Tighter is inspired by Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. I’m not sure if I ever read the James novella, but I’ve seen some of the films based on the book. I don’t think you need to read the novella to read the book, but readers of the novella will catch some references: Miles is now Milo, one of Isa’s nicknames from Jessie is Flora.
Because Tighter spooked me. Because the twists and turns kept me guessing — and surprised me even when I guessed them. Because the ending made me see the book in an entirely different light, making me reread it immediately. This is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011.