Told from the perspective of Sarah, one of the victims of the story, it starts out introducing us to both Sarah and her best friend Jennifer. The two teens had been tight for years, and even more so after the death of Jennifer's mother in a car accident when they were younger. With her father a raging alcoholic, Jennifer ends up moving in with Sarah (the first of a moderate amount of convenient-to-the-story-line incidents) and her family.
The two young women spend an unreasonable amount of their time composing a "never list", in which they configure all the ways to prevent something awful befalling them. The list continues into their college years: Never get in a car with a stranger. Never park more than six spaces from your destination. Never go to the campus library alone at night. They put bars on the windows of their joint dorm room, chose housing on the first floor in the event of a fire, kept a rope ladder at the ready, carried pepper spray everywhere...the list was endless and always being added to. Their paranoia extends to every aspect of their life.
One night they line up a car service (the one with the best record for no accidents, naturally) to pick them up after a party - because they would never drive drunk or risk riding home with a random fraternity brother. Unfortunately, the rule 'never get in a car with a stranger' must have flown out the window because the next thing you know, they are drugged by a gas leeching into the car and wind up in a dank cellar with two other girls. When Sarah wakes up in her dark prison, Jennifer is no where to be seen. The two other captives, Tracy and Christine, are both naked, skin-and-bones, and have obviously been abused in more than one way for longer than imaginable. There is a large wooden box in one corner, and Sarah comes to realize Jennifer has been locked away in said box. What the four women endure from their captor is never fully elaborated on. I suppose we should be thankful for that. But we do get tidbits here and there, in memory flashbacks that torment Sarah's waking (and sleeping) hours.
The book shifts from the past - with the dark secrets of the dungeon-like cellar haunting Sarah - to present-day, in which her obsessive fears have turned to a monstrous, raging case of PTSD. It has been ten years since she escaped the evil Jack Derber, a college psychology professor who apparently did his own kind of unsettling research. The psychopath is about to go up for parole, and the FBI agent on her case has asked her, Tracy, and Christine to testify at his parole hearing and hopefully ensure that he stays behind bars where his repulsive and disturbed mind needs to be. However, Sarah has never gotten over the fact that Jennifer did not get out alive from the ordeal, and is on a quest to find the body of her friend that Derber so often teased her about during her three year imprisonment. Derber's sentence was reduced due to the fact that they never found Jennifer's body.
Sarah's life since her ordeal has been one giant agoraphobic nightmare. She never leaves her NYC apartment, even having most of her meals delivered. She can't (won't) drive. She works from home and keeps all her comforts - the ones she allows herself - right at hand. So it's not without extreme trepidation that she gets herself involved in the case again. Convincing the other two survivors isn't easy either, and she runs into more than one roadblock. But once again embroiled in the life of Jack Derber, Sarah finds that his creepy tentacles don't stop in the penitentiary, they reach out to choke the life out of everyone he has touched. And while investigating the years-old case, she finds that his influence extends to former colleagues at the college and beyond, leading to one too many vicarious situations - especially for someone of her limited social acumen and delicate mind-set.
The Never List is a quick read, admittedly I couldn't put it down. The first two-thirds of the book went like lightning...I couldn't wait to find out what had happened in that cellar to make Sarah and her friends the way they were in present day. But my misgivings about the novel came near the end, when things were wrapping up in too neat a bow for the grueling storyline. The finale of the book felt incredibly rushed, like the author was trying to meet a deadline (or possibly tie-in to horrific events of the real-world?). There is a twist in the last pages that I'll admit surprised me, but in retrospect if I wouldn't have been in such a rush (like the author, perhaps), I may have seen it coming.
Seeing as how this is Zan's first novel, I would be interested in seeing more from her. This book, while lacking a perfectly crafted ending, did intrigue me and felt right in my wheelhouse (as a fan of dark fiction, of course) - and I would recommend it as a good read on a stormy evening.
*I have to add that while reading this novel I kept picturing the inevitable movie adaption and had my virtual cast picked out before book's end. I'm thinking if they tweak the ending, it could be a fairly decent horror thriller.