book review

Review: “The Last Thing He Told Me”

Book cover: The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave

  • Simon & Schuster, 2021
  • Hardcover,320 pages
  • ISBN 978-1-5011-7134-5


“How well can you know anyone?”

Hannah Hall, age 38, has been married to Owen Michaels for a little over a year. Hannah’s relationship with Owen’s 16-year-old daughter, Bailey, is still strained—after all, it had been just Owen and Bailey since her mother died when Bailey was about four—but Owen keeps assuring Hannah that things will get better, and Hannah keeps trying.

And then, suddenly, one morning someone comes to the door to deliver to Hannah a note from Owen that says simply “Protect her.” Hannah knows the “her” is Bailey but has no idea what else is going on. All she can do is watch the local TV news coverage of the FBI taking boxes of files out of Owen’s workplace and arresting Owen’s boss, the company’s owner. Owen has disappeared; he’s not answering his phone, and nobody has heard from him. The next morning Hannah finds a man who says he’s a U.S. Marshal at her front door. “Owen Michaels isn’t who you think he is,” the man tells Hannah. 

Photo. Background: slightly out-of-focus ocean and sandy beach. Foreground: Woman staring into distance off to left of picture.

(Photo [without text] by Amber Kipp on Unsplash)

This question is a common trope in mysteries and thrillers. Prolific crime novelist Anne Perry, for example, told an interviewer in 2014 that in her books she wanted to focus on “the effects of the pressure of criminal investigations, including the change [that they cause to] relationships, with some old ones eroded, even as new ones are formed,” and the question, “How well do I really know anyone else?”

The same question underlies The Last Thing He Told Me:

Head shot: a white woman with long, light brown hair.

“When I’m working on a book, I always start with a question I want to explore. For The Last Thing He Told Me, my question was: Can we ever truly know the people we love the most? From the moment Hannah receives Owen’s note (Protect Her), she is trying to answer this question. One of the great joys of bringing this book into the world has been hearing the many ways people answer this question for themselves.”

Laura Dave

This theme is almost always expressed as a question. The form is significant because it demands an answer, and the context suggests sinister motivations. Readers are primed to answer “Not very well, apparently” and are therefore set up to expect a story illustrating how Owen Michaels has deceived and abandoned his daughter and his new wife.

But that’s not the story the novel tells. Instead, we read about a woman who, despite pressure from dueling federal agencies (the U.S. Marshall service and the FBI), holds on to her belief that “Owen wouldn’t do that.”

The novel’s story also explores several Life Stories in Literature themes:

Life Stories in Literature




we are what we remember

inside vs. outside stories


hidden identities & secrets


creating/controlling one’s own narrative

cultural appropriation

alternate life options

alternative selves

turning points/life decisions

when/how lives intersect

multiple points of view

rewriting history

change your story, change your life

The major question of identity drives the plot, while the theme of family develops as Hannah and Bailey learn to trust each other because they have to work together to figure out what’s happening. The significance of inside vs. outside stories and the existence of hidden identities and secrets comprise the backdrop against which the novel unfolds. 

And there’s no denying that, whatever the outcome may be, the current situation is definitely a turning point in the lives of Owen, Hannah, and Bailey. Finally, the resolution involves accepting an alternate life option that will change their lives.

By repeatedly turning a common mystery/thriller trope on its head, Laura Dave has produced an uncommonly good novel. The plot is complex yet credible. The characterizations of Hannah and Bailey deepen as they learn to trust each other while searching for the truth. And their search gradually reveals the true character of the man who called himself Owen Michaels. 

shelf full of books with pastel spines, no titles

The Last Thing He Told Me is scheduled to be adapted for television (Apple TV+) in 2023; the premiere date hasn’t yet been announced.

© 2023 by Mary Daniels Brown

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