In The Girl She Used To Be, David Cristofano parts a curtain that leads inside the world of the Federal Witness Protection Program (also known as Witness Security Program or WITSEC).
The protagonist of this finely-crafted novel of psychological suspense is Melody Grace McCartney. At six years-old, she and her parents accidentally witnessed a violent mob crime that launched them into WITSEC.
When the story opens, it is twenty years later. Melody's parents are gone, but she has remained in WITSEC, assuming a variety of different names and jobs as she has been moved, for her own safety, from place to place around the country. Melody seems relatively safe, teaching mathematical proofs to high school students in order to encourage them to utilize logic. This scenario seems the perfect antidote to combat the nature of Melody's uncertain life:
"Life can be cruel," she says. "...I try to teach one central lesson in every class–and if they get this I will make sure they pass: Each and every equation brings an absolute certain conclusion. Well, that and don’t divide by zero. You see, certainty brings security. Security brings trust. Trust brings love." (Chapter One, p. 2)
It seems fitting that Cristofano utilized a mathematical proof to headline each chapter. (I wondered if my reading experience would've been made even richer if I knew what each proof actually meant and if/how each tied to themes along the way.) What the proofs did reflect was the fact that Melody is an extremely bright woman. She is a survivor. Yet security, trust and love are the variables in her own life that simply don't add up. In fact, a dearth of those three factors is what contributes to her chronic sense of restlessness and isolation.
When it's time for Melody to suddenly uproot her life and begin again in another town, things take a turn. During the move, the Feds mismanage Melody, and she comes face to face with Jonathan "Johnny" Bovaro, the henchman from the mafioso crime family, who has been on Melody's trail for twenty years. It is Bovaro's sudden presence in Melody's life--and the fact that he is the one and only person left in the world who has known her (really known her, her life story and her many identities) since she was six years-old--that forces Melody to question her existence and the meaning of her life. Bovaro tempts Melody to step outside her comfort zone. He actually offers her the chance for a future of her very own--a chance for security, trust and love--beyond the confines of WITSEC. Is it time for her to take a risk?
In his protagonist, David Cristofano has created an intriguing narrator and placed her at the helm of a moving and powerful mystery story that grows into a love story. Each characterization--how the author peels back emotional subtexts and private histories, layer by layer--shatters stereotypes and serves to ratchet up the suspense. It comes as no surprise that this novel was nominated for an Edgar Award, Best First Novel By An American Author, Mystery Writers of America (MWA).