"The plot of THE GUILTY ONE could have been torn right of the headlines..."
Reviewed by Lynn Cunningham
Posted August 6, 2015
Maris is suffering the pain of an event so horrible and
tragic that no parent should ever have to endure it. Her
beautiful daughter was murdered a year ago and she still
cannot move past it. Even worse, it is her daughter's
ex-boyfriend who is now in prison for committing this
heinous act. On top of that, Maris's husband Jeff is in the
process of leaving her. Her well-meaning sister wants her to
come and stay with her until she gets on her feet. She has a
therapist who seems to be only moderately effective at best
in helping Maris deal with her grief.
Everyone just seems to want her to move on and she was
incapable of doing that. Her daughter, Calla, had been the
light of her life. When that light had been extinguished it
was as if Maris had also died.
Ron is the father of Calla's murderer and he is dealing with
a lot of his own demons. His wife, Deb, is determined to get
her son out of prison no matter what it takes. It becomes
clear that these two people are on very different paths
where their son is concerned.
One day, through a series of odd events, a young woman
literally rescues Maris from herself and helps her to find a
place where she can just think and figure things out. Almost immediately, Maris
finds herself living in
a rather rundown apartment and making friends with an
entirely new set of people than those she had once enjoyed a
social circle with. Gone is the dreaded idea of staying with
her sister as she settles in to figure out the rest of her
THE GUILTY ONE is a novel of secrets, heartbreak, sadness, and
ultimately, healing. The characters are among the most three
dimensional ones that I have ever had the pleasure of
keeping company with in a book. The plot deals with
something very painful and tragic, and Sophie Littlefield
perfectly captures the depth of each of these emotions. As a
reader, I felt myself being drawn deeply into the life of
Maris. At times, I wanted to shake her a little but, all in
all, her behavior was quite understandable given the
The plot of THE GUILTY ONE could have been torn right of the
headlines with the very real story that it weaves. You see
and hear of these sad, horrible events almost every day, but
Sophie Littlefield offers the unique experience of walking
that very sad path along with Maris. This compelling
storytelling will leave you feeling as if you are a part of
Sometimes, you will come across a book that is so alive that
you can see it as a movie. THE GUILTY ONE is such a book. I
found myself wondering who the best actors would be to play
the roles of each main character. Sophie Littlefield seems
to write from her heart as well as her head and such talent
should not be missed.
From the award-winning author of The Missing Place—in
“Littlefield’s writing shines" (The Boston Globe)—another
gripping exploration of the damage people can do to each
other, and the resilience they find in themselves.
A man stands on the Golden Gate Bridge, poised to jump…if
woman on the other end of the phone tells him to.
Maris’s safe suburban world was shattered the day her
daughter was found murdered, presumably at the hands of
young woman’s boyfriend. Her marriage crumbling, her
shattered, Maris walks away from her pampered life as a
Area mom the day she receives a call from Ron, father of
daughter’s killer. Wracked with guilt over his son’s
(and his own possible contribution to them), he asks
single question: should he jump?
With a man’s life in her hands, Maris must decide,
for the first time, what she truly wants. Retribution?
Forgiveness? Or something more? Having lost everything,
she’s finally free to recreate herself without the
labels of “wife,” “mother,” or “mourner.” But will this
shocking offer free her, or destroy her?
ExcerptThe next day was a Tuesday, the most ordinary of days.
The inertia of the night before had dissipated when Maris
got up. The packing that had seemed so daunting took no
more than a few minutes, the selection of what to take
for a stay at her sister’s place seeming perfectly
obvious. Clothes, toiletries, a few books and journals.
Maris swept the little collection of precious keepsakes
she had been collecting into her dresser, nestling the
objects among the out-of-season sweaters; she would get
them next time she returned, when the future seemed a bit
She was out the door by ten, having outwaited the morning
commute, and in Oakland forty minutes later. She attended
to her errand with brisk detachment. When she came out
again into the heat of another ninety-degree July day,
blinking in the sun, she was buoyed by a sense of
Until she got back to her car. Standing with her hand in
her purse, searching for her keys, her brain tried to
make sense of what she was seeing: the jagged hole in the
rear window, the sidewalk littered with broken glass. It
was pretty, the way the shards sparkled in the sun, and
some part of Maris’s mind was having trouble making sense
of what she was seeing, processing how this changed her
circumstances and what she would have to do about it,
even as she marveled at the broken bits sparkling like
the pavé diamonds in the anniversary band Jeff gave her
on their tenth anniversary.
Shit. The jewelry. She had forgotten to pack her jewelry.
Maris bent down and picked up one of the tiny little
pieces. Safety glass—wasn’t that a lovely turn of phrase?
It had so many other uses. Like coffee table tops. And
sliding glass doors. People were always accidentally
crashing through those, weren’t they? Like Jeremy
Guttenfelder after the junior class prom. Calla had
gotten blood on her dress trying to help clean up.
Maris stood and put the bit of glass into her pocket. Her
fingertips touched the little slip of paper, the claim
check. She hadn’t even needed it. The man in the shop
remembered her. In her other hand she held the package
he’d given her, surprisingly heavy and wrapped in white
paper over bubble wrap. Well. She couldn’t leave the
package in the car now, could she! A manic little laugh
burst from Maris’s lips. She peered in the backseat. Of
course it was gone, all of it. The large suitcase, the
Vera Bradley duffel, the two large Crate & Barrel bags.
Ha. Good luck with that.
People who broke into cars in Oakland were likely just
looking for things to sell for drug money, for their next
high. For a chunky, for a dirty, Jeff would have said. He
was embarrassingly proud of the lingo he’d picked up from
his crime shows: burners, hoppers, carrying weight. He’d
say these things ironically, self-deprecatingly—God, he
was good at that fake self-deprecation. You don’t live
with someone for more than two decades without knowing
what lay beneath the fragile glib exterior. And still,
all that time, he never seemed to accept that she heard
things too, she knew things. And the things she knew were
Once the depth of his disinterest in her life became
clear, Maris didn’t bother to tell Jeff that the kids
didn’t really talk like that, not even the ones in East
Oakland. Before Calla’s death, Maris volunteered once a
week for a literacy program at Morgandale Elementary
School, working with a fourth-grader in one of Oakland’s
worst neighborhoods. But maybe Jeff was right to be
skeptical. Here in front of her was evidence that do-
gooders like her made no difference at all—her
possessions sold off for, what, a single afternoon’s
relief? Her clothes, toiletries, books, her journal, what
kind of money could they possibly bring? A size-twelve
wardrobe—expensive, yes, but out of date. Not one thing
purchased in the last year. And what would a junkie do
with a jar of Estée Lauder face cream?
At least Maris’s laptop was in her purse. She’d go across
the street and get some coffee and file a report. She
knew damn well that cops didn’t actually come for things
like this anymore, not in Oakland. You just went online
and filled out a form and the system assigned you a
number, and then at least you had something to show the
The package in her hand was uncomfortably heavy. Maris
hitched it up under her arm and crossed the street, not
bothering to walk back to the crosswalk on the corner.
he diner was staffed by an Asian couple. The woman stood
at the register, sorting through a pile of receipts. The
man was scraping the grill. There was one other customer
in the shop, a mumbling, shuffling black man with a coat
whose sleeves came well past his wrists. A coat, in this
heat. Maris stepped wide around him but still she could
“I’d like a large coffee,” Maris said. And then, because
she might have to sit there for a while, she scanned the
menu for something else to order to justify taking up
table space. “And a bacon and egg sandwich.”
“White or wheat?” the woman asked.
The man got to work without looking up, setting down his
spatula with a clang and reaching for the package of
bread on a shelf above the grill. What a life this must
be, working with your husband from early in the morning
until closing time at night. This heat, these smells, the
grease hanging in the air, and every day, only each
“I’ll bring.” The woman handed Maris her change and
gestured at the table.
There was only one, a Formica round top on uneven legs.
The chairs were the white plastic outdoor type you could
buy for fifteen dollars at Home Depot. The table had been
wiped, but there was still a greasy smear. Maris rubbed
at it with a napkin before she set her laptop down.
She should call Alana. Let her know she was delayed
again. God. Dread unspooled in Maris’s gut. Alana had
made it plain that she’d cleared her evenings this week,
that she’d try to take off early in the afternoons. That
the guest room was “move-in ready.” At the thought of
what lay ahead, the ease with which Maris had been
navigating the day guttered like a candle in the breeze
and she shut her eyes and forced herself to take a series
of deep breaths. Just the thought of that place—Alana’s
condo building with its designated landmark plaque, its
turret room and coy little arched windows . . . the way
Alana’s heels clicked briskly on the refurbished floors.
That was Alana: always so brisk.
The woman set Maris’s sandwich down. It arrived on a
paper plate stained with butter, wrapped in waxed paper
and cut in half.
“You work?” the woman pointed to Maris’s laptop.
“No,” Maris said, embarrassed. “I mean, yes. I have to .
She didn’t finish the sentence and the woman made a small
tsk’ing sound and went back behind the counter with her
husband. The shambling man was gone, leaving behind a
sense of industry as they all three went about their
tasks. Maybe that was what the woman meant, that Maris
should work, as if at this hour of the day it was the
only reasonable thing to do. Actually, Maris would agree
with that. It was a little after eleven. Once, when she
had a job, this had been her most productive time of the
day. Even this last year, as her leave dragged on and on
and everyone tacitly seemed to conclude that she was
never going back, morning was when Maris worked the
hardest, even if it was just ripping weeds from the
cracks between pavers or scrubbing the dust from the
She unwrapped the sandwich. Suddenly, she was ravenous.
This was the sort of food no one ate anymore: plain
square slices of pale soft bread, an egg shiny with
butter, the bacon limp and folded back on itself. It was
delicious. Maris ate the first half, starting with the
triangle corners, and then after wiping her fingers on
the paper napkin, she ate the rest.
She got up to refill her cup from the pot on the counter.
“Refill fifty cent.”
“Oh.” Maris dug her wallet from her purse, embarrassed,
and then realized she hadn’t tipped when she paid. She
laid down a dollar, then two more. The woman stared at
the bills with what might have been contempt.
Maris took her cup and sat back down. She should open the
laptop. She should get the report over with. She would
search “Oakland police report theft.” Or burglary? What
was the difference? Maris sighed, staring out the window
across the street. Her car, a three-year-old Acura with
less than forty thousand miles on it, was wedged between
a purplish Ford Taurus and an old blue Corolla.
The shop where she’d had Alana’s fittings replated was
around the corner, a long cramped space with a glass
counter right out of the 1950s and a proprietor to match,
an old bent man with white close-cropped hair and a
narrow tie. “Only place in the Bay Area still does the
triple plating,” he’d said, like an accusation, when she
brought the fittings in. Silver services and brass
doorknobs, babies’ cups and old-fashioned hand mirrors
lined the shelves, looking as though they’d been awaiting
pickup for years. “Been here since 1972,” the man said
gloomily when he ran her credit card.
Maris wondered what the neighborhood had been like when
he opened his shop. The houses were large and once must
have been nice. Take the one across the street. Blue
plastic sheeting was nailed over parts of the roof, and
the window sashes were peeling and rotting in some
places, but the eaves were ornately trimmed and the porch
rail sat on turned spindles. Leaded-glass windows in a
diamond pattern framed either side of the front door.
While she was watching, the door opened and a young man
flew out, barely pausing to slam the door shut. He had a
backpack slung over one arm, a plaid short-sleeved shirt
whose tails flapped over his shorts. Black socks, the
kind Maris’s father had worn, and white converse
sneakers. He jogged across the street without bothering
to look for traffic and headed for the diner, pushing
open the door with a shove of his shoulder.
“I'll have a pancake sandwich? With the egg in the
middle?” Only then did Maris realize that it was a woman,
not a man. A girl, really, her fine light brown hair cut
short with longer bangs falling in her eyes, and white
teeth that were a little too large for her face.
The man at the grill started pouring batter from a metal
pitcher without acknowledging her. The girl put a bill
down on the counter and helped herself to a coffee cup.
After filling it she looked at Maris and frowned. Maris
opened the laptop self-consciously and pretended to study
“Hey, do you mind if I sit here with you?” the girl said,
and without waiting for an answer, slid out one of the
white plastic chairs with her foot.
“I—no, of course not.”
Maris glanced up, giving the girl a closer look. She had
a silver bar in her ear that entered near the top and
pierced the shell-like middle before emerging near the
lobe. A tattoo peeked out from her shirt, but it was
impossible to tell what it was—all Maris could make out
was a curving barbed tendril. She dug into her backpack
and took out a book, dog-eared and marked in half a dozen
places with Post-its.
The book was East of Eden. Calla had read it junior year.
It was still sitting on the shelf in her room back in
A sound came out of Maris, a blunted wail.
“Hey,” the girl said, looking up in alarm. “Hey.”
Maris waved her hand, dabbing at her eyes with her
crumpled napkin. Usually she could cover up these
dangerous slips, which generally came when she was in CVS
or driving past the library, small moments in
unremarkable days. She had perfected a cough and swipe of
the eyes that masked the upwelling of agony.
But today was different. Today was an ending and it was
supposed to be a beginning, but Maris suddenly knew that
there was no new beginning for her, that she could not go
to Santa Luisa to her sister’s home that smelled of toast
and Balenciaga Florabotanica. There was this moment, this
girl and her book, sitting much too close, and Maris
heaved, the sandwich suddenly roiling in her stomach.
“I’m so sorry,” she mumbled. “I think I’m going to be
“Hey!” The girl shouted, jumping up from her chair. “The
lady’s sick! Give me the key!”
The woman behind the counter looked up from stocking a
display of energy bars. Her mouth tightened and she
looked directly at Maris, judging, assessing. She reached
under the counter and slammed a large metal serving spoon
on the counter. A key hung off the end.
“Come on,” the girl said. “It’ll be faster to go around.”
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