In Kelly Luce’s Pull Me Under, Rio Silvestri’s husband Sal is obsessed with puzzles. Originally this looks like a quirk thrown in for one of the secondary characters, but as the book goes on we realize that it represents the puzzle of Rio’s life that she’s struggling to put together. There are not only pieces that she kept hidden from Sal but also herself, and even when she does see them they never quite fit together correctly.
Rio was born in Japan as Chizuro Akitani to an American mother and a Japanese father. She felt a deep connection to her mother who didn’t conform to Japanese rules of society and an estrangement to her father, a celebrity violinist. At age twelve Chizuro killed a fellow classmate who bullied her constantly. She was sent to a detention center with little connection to the outside world. Her mother had already committed suicide by the time of the killing, and her father only visited her once which didn’t go well.
When Chizuro reached twenty she was released and in an effort to escape her former life she changed her name to Rio and moved to America. There she married Sal Silvestri and together they raised a daughter, Lily. Rio told Sal that she was estranged from her father but never told him about killing her classmate, instead making up a fictitious teenage life in Japan.
One day, when Chizuro was in her thirties, she received a package from Japan with a letter informing her that her father died. Despite her feelings for her father the contents of the package she decides to take a trip to Japan to go to her father’s funeral. Despite her feelings for her father, the mysterious contents of the package compels her to go, as well as some force—perhaps a desire for closure—draws her towards her old home. She reflects on this as her plane is about to land: “I’m attached to a tether. The tether is firm and gentle and it’s drawing me toward Japan. It’s a new sensation, and not uncomfortable. It feels like the plane is not propelled but pulled, an entire island nation reeling me in.”
The book does contain such language and imagery like the puzzles which feel a bit too much at times, as if the reader can’t figure out what’s going on or what the meaning is behind certain moments in Rio’s life. It’s as if Rio feels like she needs to explain every detail of her thought process with random occasional symbolism. But the story is compelling enough that it keeps the reader going, especially when Rio decides to take a spiritual pilgrimage with her former teacher, Miss Danny. To describe what happens when Rio reunites with Danny and they go on the pilgrimage together would give away too much important plot information. But from that point on Rio’s life begins to spiral out of control, and many puzzle pieces start to fall into place—including ones she didn’t realize were missing.
The book’s narrative may explain more than it has to, and the story ties everything together a bit too neatly, if unpleasantly for Rio, but it’s still well worth the read. People who grew up failing to meet the expectations of their culture and parents may also feel a connection here, as Rio plays out the fantasy that those of us bullied in school entertained. The problem for her is that she has to face the consequences of that decision well into her adult life.