Hovering throughout Antonya Nelson’s “Bound” is the real life story of the BTK Killer. The serial killer, who murdered 10 people, was dubbed BTK because he would bind and torture his victims before killing them. The novel is set in the mid-2000’s when the serial killer returns from his hiatus, and it novel flashes back to when BTK began his murders in the mid-1970s. Despite this plot device, the BTK killer drifts in and out of the primary story.
The main story in “Bound” is about the power of friendship. Two women who were best friends growing up in 1970’s Wichita eventually drift apart, due in no small part to their post-high school decisions and their family backgrounds. Catherine, daughter of a university professor, graduates from college while her friend Misty, who lived with her poor grandmother drifts away in the wake of a series of bad decisions. Eventually, she settles down to raise her daughter Cattie. We learn all of these events through flashbacks as the novel opens with Misty dying in a car crash in Colorado.
Cattie, now a high schooler, is at a boarding school in Vermont. Upon hearing the news of her mother’s death, she disappears from school, hiding out in the house of a classmates’ sister in Montpelier.
As this part of the story unfolds, the reader meets Catherine and her much older husband Oliver. Nearly seventy, Oliver is on his third wife and believes he has just found the next love of his life in a young woman working at a restaurant he owns. The only reason Catherine finds out about her old friend’s death is because Misty’s will made her guardian of Cattie. Catherine and Cattie.
Reading “Bound,” I assumed that at some point the BTK Killer would rush to the forefront of the story. This was due in part to the opaque references to the serial killer and the fact that Cattie used to take long walks at night back home in Houston. Maybe I’ve become accustomed to TV/movie style foreshadowing. On top of that, I guessed that is what the bound in the title referred to.
The strength of the novel lies in the true meaning of bound and the role it plays in the plot development. Some relationships start and end. Others develop unexpectedly. We are bound by the connections we’ve made in the past, we are bound by the decisions we make, the consequences of those decision, and in some cases, bound by the actions of others.
These bindings are evident in the relationships scattered throughout the story. It is crystal clear in the way Oliver deals with his two ex-wives, setting one up with a business and being a participant in an on-going art exchange with the other. These connections criss-cross. As Catherine’s relationship with Oliver sours, he and her mother, nearly the same age, enjoy a thawing of feelings.
While Cattie and Catherine’s relationship becomes the center of attention by the end of the book, it is Cattie’s exchanges with her classmate Ito and housemate Randall that take up a good deal of the early sections of the book. Ito is the only classmate Cattie connects with at the boarding school. He is the one who provides her with the chance to escape the school and stay with his sister after news of her mother’s death reaches Vermont. For as withdrawn as Cattie is, Ito is the opposite.
She meets her match in Randall, a housemate whose experience in the army has left him as solemn as he is quiet. Eventually, they decide to leave for Houston, Cattie’s hometown. The trip doesn’t go as planned. And, one of my few critiques of the book is that once Randall leaves Cattie to find help, he disappears from the story with little resolution.
The most moving connection, in my opinion, is the one between Cattie and her mother. Misty was a recovering alcoholic who had on a few occasions fallen off the wagon. It is her voicemails, left on Cattie’s cell, that are one of the last ties she has to her mother.
In such an emotionally powerful novel, it is surprising that Nelson devotes the first and last pages of the book to Cattie and Misty’s dog. Now that isn’t the bitter complaint of a cat person who believes Bound would have been better if the canine companion had been switched out for a feline. To this reader, it slowed the book down and the side story of the women, hiking with her boyfriend, who finds the dog seemed extraneous to me. Nevertheless, Bound is a good book that is well worth your time.