Confessions Of A Bookaholic Presents: “Always Watching” by Chevy Stevens

“Always Watching”
by Chevy Stevens (June 18, 2013) four_star_half.fw


She helps people put their demons to rest. But she has a few of her own…

In the lockdown ward of a psychiatric hospital, Dr. Nadine Lavoie is in her element. She has the tools to help people, and she has the desire: Healing broken families is what she lives for. But Nadine doesn’t want to look too closely at her own past because there are whole chunks of her life that are black holes. It takes all her willpower to tamp down her recurrent claustrophobia, and her daughter, Lisa, is a runaway who has been on the streets for seven years.

When a distraught woman, Heather Simeon, is brought into the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit after a suicide attempt, Nadine gently coaxes her story out of her—and learns of some troubling parallels to her own life. Digging deeper, Nadine is forced to confront her traumatic childhood, and the damage that began when she and her brother were brought by their mother to a remote commune on Vancouver Island.  What happened to Nadine?  Why was their family destroyed? And why does the name of the group’s leader, Aaron Quinn, provoke complex feelings of terror in Nadine even today? 

And then the unthinkable happens, and Nadine realizes that danger is closer to home than she ever imagined. She has no choice but to face what terrifies her the most… and fight back.

Sometimes you can leave the past, but you can never escape.

I’ve said it before, but this book pretty much cements things… Chevy Stevens is a powerhouse, one of my new favorite authors, and I bow down to her. Stevens’ debut novel “Still Missing” blew me away. I still am just – wow. I even made my husband read it and that happens like once a year. Her second book “Never Knowing” was good, and I liked it a lot, though it didn’t quite match her first, but this book gives “Still Missing” a run for its money, and while “Still Missing” may edge it out, this book was that good. And I know it will be on my mind for awhile.

The protagonist in this story, Nadine Lavoie, was the therapist in Stevens’ first two books and references some things that occur in the second. It isn’t imperative that you read those first, but since they are connected by this character, I would if you’re going to read them anyway. But again, this is a standalone book, so if you’re only curious no worries. Nadine is a good therapist; you know this if you’ve read the first two books. She is compassionate, understanding and so smart and so centered that sometimes she might come off as “too together,” but this book is about what lies beneath that. And boy is it juicy.

Nadine works at the psychiatric hospital and a young woman is admitted after she attempts suicide. Nadine learns that the young woman was a part of a spiritual center, led by a man she knew as a child, and thoughts of him fill her with dread. Nadine begins a path of self-discovery, trying to unlock memories that have evaded her for forty years. Something traumatic happened, and Aaron Quinn, leader of the spiritual center, which is really a cult as twisted as they come, is at the center of it. This book weaves all of the complications of Nadine’s present with her devastating and traumatic past. And what Nadine uncovers is more horrific than anything she had ever imagined.

I read a couple of reviews before writing this post, and I found myself at odds with a lot of what I read. But I can understand their viewpoints. Chevy Stevens writes a particular kind of thriller, it’s always less of imminent danger and more psychologically probing. Still, in her first two books there was still clear present danger that threatened the protagonists you came to care about. While this book is not danger-free it really does lack the level of threat that the first two had, and I can see how this could be disappointing.

For me, I feel this is a type of thriller that isn’t written nearly enough. These books are less about horrific crimes and immediate danger that take place and instead focuses on the consequences of those two things. What happens to victims and how do they become survivors? Just like Stevens wrote in her first book, “Interesting that hardly anyone asks how I feel now, not that I’d tell them. I just wonder why nobody cares much about the after – just about the story. Guess they figure it stops there. I wish.” Because the truth is trauma changes people, it marks them. That doesn’t mean they’re damaged or tainted, but to think someone comes out of being held hostage and raped repeatedly, or being stalked by a serial killer, or being abused by a cult leader… as the same person they were before – well that’s just stupid. As a survivor of abuse as a child and a violent assault years later – these books touch me. I related to the character in the first book, because I was that character in college, at the height of my PTSD unchecked – I understood her. And Stevens captured things, habits and feelings that I had never shared with anyone. She GOT IT.

In this book, I feel a connection to the character in my present day, which brings me to the second gripe a lot of reviewers had – that Nadine wasn’t unlikeable, but she was bland. I don’t think she was bland, I think she was centered. Nadine has her shit together, whereas Stevens’ previous protagonists were in therapy – they were neurotic, dealing with things, irrational… and perhaps more relatable because they were this way. I worked as a victim advocate for domestic violence and sexual assault for two years, I worked through my PTSD and have it managed – I know how to cope. Many of my friends, and my husband, describe me as hyper-rational. And I think my own experiences of surviving and my work on myself in dealing is the reason I am this way. I see things as cause and effect. I view things as productive or unproductive, and I’d rather not waste time on the unproductive. I’m diplomatic, I like to talk things out… hell I went from Annie (“Still Missing”) and became Nadine (“Always Watching”).

I never saw Nadine as bland or “too rational” because the anger and pain and fear are all still there. She is still human. She’s just a little more together than most. It’s not because she is better, it’s because the trauma made her this way. She came from an abusive family who acted like talking about anything real or even acknowledging things was the ultimate betrayal, and this made Nadine want to talk about everything. She didn’t want to repeat her parents’ mistakes; she wanted better for her daughter. She feels a drive to help people because of her own traumatic childhood, always trying to help and heal others, as if it can take her own pain away. I get this too. I understand it. I just think it may read as less interesting for people who like their characters a little less neat and a little more “on edge.” I think readers also forget Nadine is much older than Stevens’ previous characters (early fifties) and she is a psychiatrist (or psychologist, I’m not sure which) so she naturally is going to be a little more objective than people who are still in the thick of their trauma without the training or years to know how to deal. I loved this book, and reading Nadine was a breath of fresh air, because unlike the character in Stevens’ sophomore effort, I understood her and connected with her on a deeper level.

As far as the story, it is plenty twisted and I felt the threat as strongly as I had in the first two books. When you’re dealing with a cult that cuts off its members from the outside world and has questionable practices and beliefs that put others at risk – it is scary. But when its leaders may be abusing children and torturing those who want to leave – it is downright terrifying. I also felt Stevens did her homework for this book. She seemed to really understand how a lot of cults work, and the psychology of their leaders, members and how they target people, as well as the psychology behind different childhood traumas and the feelings many victims may feel.

All in all, I felt this book was spectacular; it didn’t lull, and had me hooked. I had to finish it as soon as I started reading the first chapter. I was tempted to give it 5 out of 5 stars, but my policy is if I have to think about it, it’s just the next best thing. Still – that’s pretty damn good. 😉

So, it’s official – Stevens is one of my new favorite writers, and she isn’t going anywhere. I can’t wait to read her fourth book (“That Night”) or her fifth when it comes out next month. 🙂


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