Book Review | Before She was Helen by Caroline B. Cooney

About the Book

Her life didn’t turn out the way she expected—so she made herself a new one

When Clemmie goes next door to check on her difficult and unlikeable neighbor Dom, he isn’t there. But something else is. Something stunning, beautiful and inexplicable. Clemmie photographs the wondrous object on her cell phone and makes the irrevocable error of forwarding it. As the picture swirls over the internet, Clemmie tries desperately to keep a grip on her own personal network of secrets. Can fifty years of careful hiding under names not her own be ruined by one careless picture?

And although what Clemmie finds is a work of art, what the police find is a body. . . and she was the last person at the crime scene, where she left her fingerprints. Suddenly thrown into the heart of a twisted investigation, Clemmie finds herself the uncomfortable subject of intense scrutiny. And the bland, quiet life Clemmie has built for herself in her sleepy South Carolina retirement community comes crashing down as her dark past surges into the present.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Goodreads Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Before she was Helen, her name was Clementine or Clemmie for short, and this is her story.

Many mysteries abound in Clemmie’s world – who killed her next-door neighbor, how did a drug dealer’s beautiful glass drug paraphernalia, that looked like artwork, get in the empty bungalow nearby, where’s the million dollars that belongs to the drug dealer, and who killed Rudyard Creek fifty years ago. And the solving of those many mysteries creates a story that is fast-paced, full of suspense, and at times, jaw-dropping.

There are two main elements of this novel – the modern-day mystery and the life of Clementine Lakefield, aka Clementine Murray, aka Helen Stephens.

The modern-day mystery is very much a plot-driven tale about who killed Clemmie’s neighbor and stole a drug dealer’s prized possession along with 1 million of his illegally earned dollars. Borobasq is suave and cocky, living in a world that bends to his will. When he learns that his stolen goods are in a retirement village outside of Charlotte, NC, he doesn’t hesitate to get on a plane and investigate. He is not above hurting senior citizens, which is very easy to do when you don’t understand the medications they may take or the physical limitations that come with aging. His dastardly determination creates much of the suspense that keeps the pages turning quickly. He quickly finds all that doesn’t add up in this neighborhood of senior citizens – things that most people wouldn’t ever think possible much less probable because he doesn’t look at them like senior citizens. He suspects everybody in an ingenious drug trafficking business in the middle of an unassuming retirement village.

The focus on a retirement community does not limit this story’s accessibility to younger (as in more youthful than 55 years old) readers, since a good percentage of the story is about Clemmie and her life, starting in her teen years. While the current day mystery brings in all the action and suspense, I expected from a mystery, Clemmie’s story brings in a tragic, even poignant, element that is as unexpected as it is moving.

Clemmie’s life story is character-driven and even more impactful than murder and a drug dealer running amok in a retirement community. We learn early on that her brother’s coach rapes her, and since it is the fifties, she is unable to tell anyone or bring him to justice. She felt no one would believe her, and considering her parents’ reaction to the subsequent pregnancy, it seems as though she is right about their probable response. The rest of her story is one that is defined by those tragic and criminal events. She is never able to process what happened to her and to move on to a full life – one where she enjoyed the love and companionship that she always wanted. And it goes on to frame her reaction to current day events.

These reactions caused me a great deal of frustration with Clemmie. I just wanted to take her by the hand and walk her through what she needed to do as the mystery unfolded, and the drug dealer hid out in her home. Clemmie is an exciting mix of fantastic strength and learned helplessness. Though this is a frustrating element in the novel, it did succeed in holding me in the stories’ grip and not letting go until the last page.

The conclusion is a surprising twist, and I love unexpected twists. I will say that there is a lot more than card games going on in Sun City, which is an actual retirement neighborhood in Fort Mill, SC, right outside of Charlotte, NC. I live north of Charlotte, so it was bizarre for me to read about a setting that is… well… home. There is part of me that wants to drive down to Sun City to see what’s going on.

8 Replies to “Book Review | Before She was Helen by Caroline B. Cooney”

  1. Not sure this one would work for me, but I like the dual timeline aspect, and as always, your review is so insightful.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s crazy it’s based on a retirement community in Fort Mill. My in-laws live in a facility there, but it’s not Sun City (the name makes me think it’s a nudist community, lol).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lol. I looked it up and it actually exist. I knew there was one outside of Hilton Head in Bluffton but I had no idea there was one in Fort Mill. And you never know with those retirement communities what they will do in the hot summer sun 😮

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It does sound like fun. The real one and the book one. I’m not quite there yet but my husband and I have started thinking about retirement in a more concrete way.❤️


    1. I’m not sure if you would like it either, honestly. It doesn’t move quite as fast as the books you usually enjoy but it does move at a good pace.


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