Review: Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin



Ballantine Books | 2015

Filed Under: Canadian Bacon is not Ham ffs!

This is just an OK book about O.J. Simpson.

Oh, I’m sorry, it’s not about O.J. Simpson? He’s just talked about incessantly?

My bad.

So, this is a pretty good suspense mystery that is not about O.J. Simpson.

But who are we kidding? There really is no O.J. mystery.

*Points to my name tag that reads: Ask me about how O.J.’s oldest son probably did it and he covered it up for him*

Black-Eyed Susans follows Tessa, the only surviving victim of a serial killer. Known as “the lucky one,” her body was left in a ditch covered in the ominous yellow flowers and surrounded by the remains of three other women. Now 32, with a daughter and a life she’s scraped together with determination and strength, Tessa has to face the consequences of the testimony she gave at her accused killer’s trial because she’s not totally convinced the right man is behind bars anymore.

But just like everyone else in the history of mystery novels, the bitch has amnesia and can’t remember what happened to her.

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With the execution looming, Tessa teams up with the inmate’s lawyers and forensic experts, to find the truth. Who were the other victims? Is her killer still free? Where did her best friend disappear fifteen years ago? And who keeps planting black-eyed-Susans in her garden?

And ALSO, just what do Americans think Canadian bacon is?

Look, this is Canadian bacon:


Also known as peameal bacon or back bacon. It is not ham. Or even ham-like meat. Whatever you are being sold in your grocery stores as Canadian bacon is utterly wrong. A lie!

And it does not go on pizza, Tessa!

But I digress…

“I am the Cartwright girl, dumped once upon a time with a strangled college student and a stack of human bones out past Highway 10, in an abandoned patch of field near the Jenkins property. I am the star of screaming tabloid headlines and campfire ghost stories. I am one of the four Black-Eyed Susans. The lucky one.”

Flipping back and forth between 1995 –  when Tessa was in therapy, preparing for the trial – and present-day – where Tessa is seeking out answers to protect herself but mostly to protect her daughter – I found this to be a slow burner with ambitious goals. And I can’t honestly say it all worked for me. I’m definitely not coming away from this with hearts in my eyes, but I don’t have anything terribly negative to say about it either.

I know, it’s more fun when I’m evil. I agree.

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The writing is technically engrossing and I would say way above average for this genre (no offence to the majority). There is just something about Heaberlin’s prose that is beautifully crafted, even when speaking about forensics or court proceedings. I think this is what kept the sedate pace of the story-telling from knocking me out cold.

Teen Tessa’s appointments with her therapist were by far the most interesting chapters in the book. Teen Tessa comes across as an unreliable narrator in her own life, something to keep things interesting. Whereas Adult Tessa seemed to have forgotten what her personality was. She was bland and lacked any emotional substance, creating “present-day” chapters that were wanting.

As far as the mystery itself goes, the new information discovered felt genuine instead of “shocking” and the science behind it was interesting and seemingly well-researched, but honestly, I no do science good. So as long as the author sounds like they know what they’re talking about, I’ll buy it. Does that make me gullible? Maybe. People tell me I am, and I have no reason not to believe them.

As for the twist ending, my biggest problem with it was that Heaberlin dropped the suspense and realism and opted instead to take more of a gimmicky path. She kept the truth at such a distance from me as a reader that it didn’t come across as a clever surprise, as much as it did an oddity to the rest of the novel.

Instead of “WHAT?!“, I got more of a: “Um, what?”

You see the difference there?

The first 85% of the novel feels genuine, human and, despite the lead’s lack of emotional availability, it was engrossing in its honesty of the justice system, surviving trauma and forensic work. But the ending was a put-on as if it was trying to be something it wasn’t. There was no lead-up (that I caught onto) so it came across like an ending to a different novel. And also, that ending that was dragged out unnecessarily. Tessa had a lot of tools at her disposal to amp up the pace and tension, but she kept that snail’s pace to everything she did.

I wouldn’t call this creepy or a thriller, or really even psychological. It lacked menace, with the only threat of a maybe-killer being some flowers planted in a garden and someone stealing people’s gardening spades in the middle of the night. I mean, come on.

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But it is a decent mystery, with beautiful prose and a mostly thoughtful plot. So I can’t hate on it too much, but I also didn’t love it. That emotional spark I’m looking for was missing in the home stretch and the ending was too disjointed for me.

It’s just the most okay-est!


For fans of Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn comes an electrifying novel of stunning psychological suspense.

I am the star of screaming headlines and campfire ghost stories. I am one of the four Black-Eyed Susans. The lucky one.

As a sixteen-year-old, Tessa Cartwright was found in a Texas field, barely alive amid a scattering of bones, with only fragments of memory as to how she got there. Ever since, the press has pursued her as the lone surviving “Black-Eyed Susan,” the nickname given to the murder victims because of the yellow carpet of wildflowers that flourished above their shared grave. Tessa’s testimony about those tragic hours put a man on death row.

Now, almost two decades later, Tessa is an artist and single mother. In the desolate cold of February, she is shocked to discover a freshly planted patch of black-eyed susans—a summertime bloom—just outside her bedroom window. Terrified at the implications—that she sent the wrong man to prison and the real killer remains at large—Tessa turns to the lawyers working to exonerate the man awaiting execution. But the flowers alone are not proof enough, and the forensic investigation of the still-unidentified bones is progressing too slowly. An innocent life hangs in the balance. The legal team appeals to Tessa to undergo hypnosis to retrieve lost memories—and to share the drawings she produced as part of an experimental therapy shortly after her rescue.

What they don’t know is that Tessa and the scared, fragile girl she was have built a  fortress of secrets. As the clock ticks toward the execution, Tessa fears for her sanity, but even more for the safety of her teenaged daughter. Is a serial killer still roaming free, taunting Tessa with a trail of clues? She has no choice but to confront old ghosts and lingering nightmares to finally discover what really happened that night.

Shocking, intense, and utterly original, Black-Eyed Susans is a dazzling psychological thriller, seamlessly weaving past and present in a searing tale of a young woman whose harrowing memories remain in a field of flowers—as a killer makes a chilling return to his garden.

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