BookBrowse Reviews Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Long Black Veil

by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan X
Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Apr 2017, 304 pages
    Jan 2018, 320 pages

  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp

Buy This Book

About this Book



A novel about a woman whose family and identity are threatened by secrets from her past.

"This was a long time ago, before my first death, and none of us now are the people we were then. Instead we are ghosts: two of us dead, a third unrecognizable, a fourth suspected of murder."

These enigmatic opening lines for Long Black Veil hint at the mystery to come, as well as one of the themes woven through this multifaceted novel. The deftly told story doesn't fit into one specific box. It's a murder mystery, as well as an exploration of transgender identity. Told from multiple timelines and characters' point of view, as well as shifting between various geographic locations in the Northeast, it is also a thoughtful character study, contrasting who the characters were in their twenties against who they become thirty-five years later.

The opening scene sets in motion the defining moment for six friends, recently graduated from college, and takes place the day after the wedding of two of them: brash, bold, Wailer and gentle, thoughtful (and overweight) Casey. The remaining members of the group include Maisie, a musician and former girlfriend of wealthy and privileged Tripper; artist Rachel; and sensitive Quentin, who all have confusing relationships with one another. Tagging along with the core group are Benny, Maisie's ten-year-old brother, and Herr Krystal, a former teacher, who may or may not have a questionable interest in Benny. As the book opens, after spending the day at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the group decides to walk to the ruins of Eastern State Penitentiary (see 'Beyond the Book'), and then to explore the boarded-up grounds. Early on, we realize one member of the party will disappear during this fated excursion, but the plot twists and turns before we know who turns out to be the corpse mentioned in the second chapter.

Interspersed with the events that unfold during that summer night in 1980, are the stories of the remaining characters, now middle-aged and living separate lives. Adding to the complexity of this mystery, the central narrator is Judith, whose relationship to the original group is revealed within the first half.

Judith is in her mid-fifties, married, with a son, and living a content life in Maine. She worries about the future for her teenage son, Falcon, hoping he will choose college instead of following his father into the family's septic-tank business. Falcon's closest friend is cheerful Caeden who has recently undergone gender-reassignment with the support and acceptance of family and friends. Judith's peaceful life is set into emotional turmoil when she hears the news that the skeleton of the person who disappeared in 1980 has been discovered, leading to one of the friends being accused of murder. Suddenly, she is forced to face the fallout of choices made in her late twenties. Consequences of secrets is a theme well-explored throughout the novel.

Although the murder mystery is central to the plot, I found Judith's character struggles to be compelling, thought-provoking and, as someone of a similar age, authentic. Just as adolescence is a time to shift from childhood into adulthood, middle age is also a significant milestone and a cusp between the past and future. Judith is facing her own mortality as she looks back at her youth and self-evolution. As much as young adulthood feels like a time of endless opportunity, middle age can be a reminder to make the most of one's limited time ahead. It's when choices must be made with the firm understanding that our personal decisions impact the lives of loved ones. I'd call this story a coming of—middle—age story.

The murder mystery wraps up clearly by the end, although I was far more invested in following Judith's journey of self-examination and the bittersweet love story with her long-time husband. Long Black Veil will appeal to readers who enjoy complex plots and exploring contemporary issues of identity and the role of gender; as well as the idea of self-reinvention. After all, "the struggle to find a connection between the people we have been and the people we become is not some crazy drama unique to people like me," as Judith says, "It's all of us."

Reviewed by Sarah Tomp

This review was originally published in May 2017, and has been updated for the January 2018 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access, become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Eastern State Penitentiary

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: American Prison
    American Prison
    by Shane Bauer
    After spending over two years in Iran's notorious Evin Prison for supposedly crossing the country's ...
  • Book Jacket: Small Fry
    Small Fry
    by Lisa Brennan-Jobs
    Small Fry is the debut memoir from Lisa Brennan-Jobs, long-time journalist and writer, and oldest ...
  • Book Jacket: The Winter Soldier
    The Winter Soldier
    by Daniel Mason
    Imagine the thousands of confounding cases doctors face routinely for which diagnoses are hard to ...
  • Book Jacket: Brother
    by David Chariandy
    Brother is the brief, moving account of how a single, tragic moment in time can alter the course of ...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
The Removes by Tatjana Soli

A powerful, transporting novel about the addictive intensity and freedom of the American frontier.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Sold on a Monday
    by Kristina McMorris

    An unforgettable novel inspired by a stunning piece of history.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win The Clockmaker's Daughter

The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton

A rich, spellbinding new novel from the author of The Lake House. On sale Oct 9.


Word Play

Solve this clue:

T Turn T S

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.