My first experience with Melanie Thernstrom's writing was The Dead Girl, her debut, which was a moving tribute to her best friend's murder. When Halfway Heaven followed in 1997, I grabbed it immediately, assuming that with Thernstrom's insider knowledge of Harvard (she'd been both a student and an instructor there), her version of events would be riveting.
::: The Murder/Suicide :::
The murder/suicide of two of Harvard's foreign students was huge news back in 1995. Sinedue Tadesse, an Ethiopian national, stabbed her roommate Trang Ho, a Vietnamese immigrant, 45 times, then hung herself. Ho's friend, Thao Nguyen, was there at the time of the attack, and attempted to stop it, but was attacked herself, and locked out of the room as she ran for help.
The crime itself was shocking enough: both girls were good, if not outstanding students; both were pre-med students; and they had been roommates for two years. Students who knew both girls claimed to have seen no signs of the impending tragedy, and no one who knew them could see any reason for Sinedu's attack to have occurred. Police had enough evidence to be sure of what had happened (locked windows with untouched dust, a door blocked after Nguyen's exit, the suicide), but no motive. Compounding the lack of information was the reticence of Harvard administration to share the findings of their own internal investigation, gag orders placed on faculty and staff by the administration, and the reluctance of two families to talk to reporters. Ho's mother spoke no English, and Tadesse's family lived in Ethiopia.
Thernstrom, on assignment from The New Yorker interviewed everyone she possibly could, from members of the school's tutoring staff (which, best as I can determine, are a combination resident advisor and student advisor) to former students of Harvard, to Tadesse's family and others in Ethiopia. Halfway Heaven is a compendium of the information about the case itself, as well as on the state of mental health care available on college campuses.
::: The First Person :::
Where Halfway Heaven fails is in its similarities to The Dead Girl. Thernstrom wrote The Dead Girl as half-friend/half-reporter. The insertion of her own thoughts and feelings made perfect sense there, as it was her friend who was murdered. She participated in the search. She went to the funeral. When she does the same with Halfway Heaven, it becomes annoying.
What could have been a decent investigative report on the murder/suicide becomes a personal mission for Thernstrom. The tragedy of two very bright girls becomes a vehicle for Thernstrom to share her own feelings, from her reluctance to pester the family in Ethiopia, to reflections on her own friend's murder, to a brief encouter she had with Tadesse while teaching a course at Harvard that is given far too much significance in her mind.
The beginnings of the book show definite promise as Thernstrom attempts to look at the reasons why the murder/suicide happened, and what part, if any, the college's environment created the situation that led to it. However, from her first decision to stay in a student meeting with administration because she just "didn't think to leave" smacks of a smarmy "Harvard insider" mentality. Any good investigative journalist will obviously use any tool possible to get the story, but an incident like the one in which Thernstrom attempts to interview the head of the house the girls live in is just annoying and superfluous. When she asks the receptionist for a copy of the house phone book, she is denied, and takes a perverse pleasure in getting the same information out of another copy in a central location, while admitting she could have gotten the same information from the campus operator. Her "Hah! I showed them! I KNEW where else to find it because I LIVED HERE." did nothing but detract from my opinion of her as an impartial reporter. Every time Thernstrom was denied access or information by someone at Harvard, it became more and more like a child stomping her foot saying "I'll show them."
The first half of the book is a fascinating look into some of the dynamics that may have played into the tragedy, but the second half is more of a petulant whine at being denied additional access based on what she perceives to be her insider status that puts her in a different position than the rest of the press. Halfway Heaven had a great deal of potential at exposing not only possible motives for the murder/suicide and any responsibility the college may have had in its occurrence, but is reduced to more of an adolescent rant including interviews with students who feel the mental-health care system at Harvard failed them, but otherwise have nothing to do with the crime whatsoever.