The title for this review is NOT a spoiler, btw. It's just a fact you need to keep in mind as you read this superbly twisting novel by Anne Heltzel. There's a lot going on and not much of it is what you think it is. This, indeed, is a very good thing. Complex, possibly far-fetched, definitely engrossing, Charlie, Presumed Dead is all that and more.
Aubrey's boyfriend, Charlie, has perished in a small airplane crash and his funeral is being held in Paris, so Aubrey-from-the-small-town strikes out in order to attend. Once there, however, shock and disbelief smack her in the face when another girl gets up to speak at the funeral and identifies herself as Charlie's long term girlfriend. Determined to discover just what the heck is going on, Aubrey follows the girl and demands answers. It turns out, the one both girls should be demanding answers from is Charlie--but of course he's not talking. Lena reveals that she has been dating Charlie for three years; both of their sets of parents are international travelers with a hands-off policy in raising children and bank accounts that allow them to come and go as they please. Aubrey, on the other hand, has always been fairly sheltered and on a more traditional path in life. As they begin talking, it is obvious that the Charlie each knew was someone entirely different with both, deceptive with each and keeping critical secrets of his own. In fact, Lena is convinced that Charlie is not dead at all, and she is determined to prove it. Though highly skeptical, Aubrey agrees to tag along with this other girlfriend in order to find Charlie--and more importantly, to keep her own secrets from seeing the light of day. But Lena has secrets, too.
Told in chapters of alternating viewpoints, we don't have any great inside information from either girl because both are determined to keep others, and the reader, in the dark as much as possible. We follow these teens as they move first to London, then to Mumbai, and on to Bangkok, following leads and encountering shady characters who also may or may not be hiding something. Slowly the pieces come together, and the results are horrifying and thoroughly devastating in ways neither girl imagined.
This is a highly creative story, and while both Lena and Aubrey have annoying habits and behave in immature, reckless ways, they worm themselves into your subconscious so that you have to keep reading. While I was very suspicious of certain characters from the get-go, the stage is well set so that you can understand the hows and whys of the girls' interactions and behaviors even while silently screaming at them to think things through. My biggest problem with the novel is that I would find it hard to believe, in real life, that events could play out as they did, but that doesn't detract from the fact that this is one excellent story. The reveals of what's going on are strategically placed and I'm left thinking about the plot and the characters, wondering what's happening even now. There's a good set up for a sequel, and I want it sooner rather than later.