Content warning: this review discusses potentially triggering plot points in a book, including death and grief.
Full honesty, as I read this book and as I am now writing this review, I am currently suffering through the worst cold I’ve had since 2019 (turns out, mask-wearing works).So forgive me if anything I say about Dante Medema’s delightful sophomore novel, “Message Not Found,” is entirely incoherent, but I think I’d also be incoherent if I was perfectly well because … wow.
Bailey and Vanessa are best friends, as close as sisters and absolutely inseparable. And then one night, during the snowy Alaskan winter, Vanessa dies in a car crash. In a grief-stricken moment, Bailey decides to bring Vanessa back to life as a chat bot, uploading texts, emails and social media posts to a program she steals from her computer scientist mother’s hard drive. But as Bailey continues to talk to this fake-Vanessa, as well as her other friends from school, she begins to realize there may have been more to Vanessa’s death than anyone originally thought.
Now, I am possibly one of the worst people to review this book for accuracy, as I am not from Alaska, have never experienced the death of a loved one and know close to nothing about artificial intelligence. But I have lost friendships before — thankfully, they are all still alive — and I can tell you with absolute confidence that Medema portrays the lingering love towards a lost friend and the sharpness of betrayal in a stunning way.
I flew through this book, trying to figure out the mystery of Vanessa’s death, haunted by Bailey’s grief and entranced by the intertwined relationships between the characters in this book. The novel is a lot shorter than it looks thanks to the numerous text message conversations that happen throughout, something I also appreciated about Dante’s first book, “The Truth Project” — though that book was narrated in verse instead of prose.
Overall, this book was incredibly captivating and tragic, but it leaves you with a feeling of hope at the end, and I think that’s become a hallmark of Dante Medema’s work. When you peel back the layers of the drama of real life, you find so many nuanced emotions that she encapsulates so well. I can’t wait to hear more about her future projects.
And the last thing I’ll say is that you shouldn’t read “Message Not Found” while you’re sick, because between blowing your nose and crying your eyes out, you will use up a large amount of tissues. (Disclaimer, I did not actually cry, but I was reading in a public space, so I really had to hold back.)
“Message Not Found” releases on March 29, 2022 from Quill Tree Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. I received a review copy from the author with no actual expectation of a review — we’re just TikTok mutuals, and she’s a very kind soul.