I think most grown women and young girls understand the power of an intense friendship. These relationships can be beautiful and decades long or they can be short-lived and downright destructive to the point where a person loses their own identity. It’s not any comfort to know that friendships can be as baffling at the age of 40 as they are the age of 16. It is a comfort, however, to find friends you once thought lost.
At the start of Lauren Strasnick’s Then You Were Gone, Adrienne and Dakota have had an intense friendship that ended two years ago. Dakota was more than a wild child; she’s the kind of girl mothers want to keep both their sons and daughters away from. Dakota is the poster girl for damaged teenagers. She’s the girl who ingests a speedball and thrash dances barefoot on top of a thin glass table top.
Now a high school senior, Adrienne has put her life back together. There are times she gets heart-sick thinking about Dakota, but she knows she’s better off without her. But one day Adrienne gets a phone call from Dakota and doesn’t answer. Adrienne is plagued by guilt when she finds out Dakota has gone missing. She should have called her back. Did Dakota commit suicide or has she just disappeared like she does now and again, both worrying and angering her loved ones? Dakota fronted an up and coming band that was picking up an underground following. There were even rumors of getting a record deal. So why did she disappear?
The world Adrienne had put back together for herself begins crumbling after Dakota’s disappearance. She doesn’t know if she loves her boyfriend Lee or if being with him is comfortable and safe. Her best friend Kate doesn’t understand why Adrienne is obsessed with finding Dakota. Adrienne doesn’t understand it herself. Their friendship ended two years ago. Why should she care? But she does. She becomes blind to anything but finding Dakota.
Adrienne begins to turn into Dakota, donning dark-colored clothing and lining her eyes with kohl. She begins to hang out with Julian, Dakota’s on again off again boyfriend. The two of them even break into the house Dakota lived in with her step-father thinking that maybe he killed her and did away with her body. Adrienne begins skipping classes, not turning in her assignments, and not participating in lectures like she once did.
In the back of her mind she knows she’s trying to turn herself into Dakota. A small part of her is screaming at Dakota, shouting that she’s messing everything up, her perfect relationship with her boyfriend, her grades, even her relationship with her mom. She’s desperate to find Dakota. But she’s also desperate for Julian to see her as Adrienne and not “Dakota’s former best friend.” She starts to wonder if she and Dakota had actually been friends or if Dakota had just used her. After breaking into Dakota’s house and searching her room she finds a photograph tucked inside a book.
Slipping the book back on the shelf, I see it. A photo corner jutting out the top. I pinch it. Pull slowly. My belly bottoms out. Me. It’s me. I’m twelve, maybe? Thirteen? I’m licking an ice cream cone. My eyes are crossed. Did she take this? Proof, finally. Of our friendship. I mattered once. Even if I don’t anymore.
Adrienne begins to get phone calls from a blocked number. She almost convinces herself it has to be Dakota. But that ship has sailed. Dakota is nowhere to be found. After someone finds one of Dakota’s boots washed up on the beach Adrienne decides to let go and accept that Dakota is dead. She dumps all of the dark clothing, gets rid of the kohl eye liner and is ready for things to get back to normal with her boyfriend, her English grade and her friend Kate. No more of The Mystery That Is Dakota Webb.
Except it’s not so easy going back to the way things were. Adrienne’s boyfriend Lee has started seeing someone else after being ignored by Adrienne. She writes the essay she’s been given two extensions on and her English teacher won’t accept it. She’s let him down. She’s let so many people down.
Dakota Webb has done more harm in disappearing than she has by being around. Little pockets of freshmen start to dress like her. A memorial goes up. She gets raised to near deity status. You know you really matter only if you’re dead. Tupac’s been dead for years and he’s still insanely popular. Same with Elvis. I think they’ve both been seen alive and well, traveling somewhere in the North with Bigfoot.
Dakota is becoming a legend and most people are forgetting how self-serving, how manipulative she was. Adrienne realizes that their friendship was never equal. She followed Dakota’s lead and let her abuse her because she thought that’s what friendship meant. Having a healthy friendship with someone like Kate restores Adrienne’s self-esteem. Life’s not perfect and life’s not always flowers and fairy tales but her life has become more stable having gone through her friendship with Dakota.
Read Then You Were Gone for the mystery inside but also read it to get a picture of surviving a tumultuous friendship and coming out of it a stronger person. Some of us have been like Adrienne, used and constantly tested. But with time we begin to return to who we were before, all the better for having gone through a rough friendship.