The Quick Recap and Section-by-Section Summary for We Were Never Here by Andrea Bartz are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile's review of We Were Never Here by Andrea Bartz.
The one-paragraph version: Emily and Kristen are on vacation in Chile when Kristen kills a man, saying that he attacked her. Together, they dispose of the body. It mirrors an incident last year when Kristen had killed a man that tried to assault Emily. Soon, Kristen ends up moving home to where Emily lives and becomes increasingly clingy. Emily suspects Kristen feels threatened by Emily dating someone new, Aaron. Emily starts to realize how Kristen always wants Emily to herself and has sabotaged her past relationships. She thinks that Kristen killed the man in Chile in hopes it would bring them closer over the shared trauma. When Kristen finally blackmails Emily over the deaths to force her to stay close to her, Emily tries to push Kristen off a cliff but has a change of heart. Kristen then tries to kill Emily, but is stopped and killed by Aaron.
Emily Donovan and her best friend Kristen Czarnecki are on vacation in Chile when Emily returns after a night out to find Kristen in the room with a dead body. Kristen says the man she'd invited back, Paolo, assaulted her after being unwilling to take no for an answer.
Emily is shocked and still traumatized over very similar events that had transpired when they were on vacation in Cambodia just last year. In that case, Emily had invited a guy back to their hotel -- Sebastian -- and he had gotten too rough with her. When she told him to leave, he attempted to assault her until Kristen happened to return to the room to stop him. Sebastian had died, and they'd gotten rid of the body by tossing it off the nearby cliff into the water.
In present day, they rehash a conversation they've had before about how difficult it can be to deal with foreign police. Once again, the women realize the only option is to get rid of the body. Upon returning home to Milwaukee, Emily feels unsettled by how unbothered Kristen seems to be and the strange coincidence in this happening twice to them.
Emily finds herself wanting some distance from their friendship, but Kristen shows up at her door saying that she's moving back to Milwaukee (from Sydney). Kristen is staying with her grandparents (because her parents died in a house fire when she was 12).
Kristen soon hijacks Emily's birthday plans to turn it into a weekend away for the two of them at Kristen's grandparent's lake house. Emily suspects the Kristen is so eager to keep her close because she feels threatened by Emily dating someone new, Aaron. She eventually starts to think about her past relationships, and starts to think that Kristen has wanted to sabotage them to keep her to herself.
Meanwhile, the Chilean police have found Paolo's body. It turns out he is American and from a wealthy family who is offering a $1M reward for information about his death.
At the lake house, Emily also finds out about Kristen's childhood best friend, Jamie, who passed away. An online search reveals that Jamie committed suicide two weeks after Kristen's parents died.
When they get back home, Emily starts to pull away from her friendship with Kristen, but Kristen reminds her that she has dirt on her through a photo she has of Emily and Sebastian together. When they get into an argument, and Kristen threatens to turn it over to the authorities. Kristen also shows her that she still has evidence of the Paolo murder to use against her as well, and Kristen insists that Emily was the one who killed Sebastian, not her.
Desperate to get away from Kristen, Emily plans an impromptu weekend trip away to Arizona with Aaron. However, Kristen shows up there. In the meantime, the police have now released a sketch of who they think was involved in Paolo's murder, who they've identified as an American woman. The police have also determined that Paolo was drugged before he was killed.
In Arizona, Kristen forces Emily to hang out with her. Feeling cornered, Emily thinks that Kristen has underestimated her, and she realizes that she (Emily) really was the one who killed Sebastian. With that in mind, Emily shoves Kristen off a nearby cliff. However, Kristen ends up hanging off a ledge, and Emily has a change of heart and saves her.
When Aaron comes driving up, Kristen then retaliates by trying to shove Emily in front of his vehicle. But Aaron manages to swerve in time and instead he hits Kristen and they both go careening off the cliff.
Ultimately, Aaron survives, but Kristen dies. At the hospital, Kristen's godparents show up -- Jamie's parents. Jenny (Jamie's mother) tells Emily that she knows Kristen was trouble and had been a bad influence, but she still felt bad for her. Kristen was always trying to get Jamie to misbehave or she'd do bad things and try to convince Jamie that she (Jamie) did it.
Jenny later learned that Kristen's father had been abusing Jamie. Jamie thought the only way to stop it was to kill him, so she started the house fire not realizing that Kristen's mother was home (as was Kristen, but Kristen escaped). Soon after, Jamie killed herself.
In present day, Emily tells Aaron the full truth about what happened, saying that she's willing to turn herself in to prevent him from being charged with Kristen's murder. But he helps her find a lawyer, Deirdre. Soon, the police tie Kristen and Emily to Paolo's death. However, Deirdre convinces them that Kristen had been blackmailing Emily, and they drop the case against Emily. Also, the Arizona police initially think Aaron and Emily purposefully killed Kristen to shut her up, but eventually they give up after they determine they are unable to build a compelling case against the two of them.
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Chapters 1 – 3
Emily Donovan and her best friend Kristen Czarnecki, both women who are nearing thirty and who met in college at Northwestern, are on their annual reunion trip. Emily works as a project manager at an organic cat food start up called Kibble while Kristen works at a market research firm. Kristen is beautiful and comes from a wealthy background.
Emily’s college boyfriend was Ben. For a long time, she’d convinced herself that he was caring although he was actually mostly controlling. In a fight their senior year, he’d gotten physical with her, and they’d finally broken up. Emily has recently started dating a new guy, Aaron Meuleman.
Emily and Kristen have been in South America for the last five days, with two more to go. They’re currently in Chile. Emily is still traumatized by the events of their previous trip last year to Cambodia where things had taken a horrifying turn. A man — a fratty backpacker named Sebastian — had attacked Emily, and they’d killed him in self-defense.
They’d met Sebastian at a bar, and Emily had invited him back to her place. However, she’d gotten uncomfortable when he’d been too rough with her. When she told him to leave, he’d attempted to sexually assault her, except that Kristen had walked in and stopped it. Kristen had then hit him on the head with a lamp, and he’d hit his head again as he collapsed and died. Afraid of having to deal with the police, they instead throw the body off a cliff nearby and into the water, departing the area soon after.
In retrospect, Emily regrets that he died, but she still thinks it was for the best that they got rid of the body instead of telling the local police. Afterwards, Emily had wanted to talk to a therapist about what had happened, but Kristen had been against the idea. Instead, she’d offered to talk her through it instead and had been there for her.
Chapters 4 – 8
In present day, Kristen suggests that they plan a six-month trip to travel the world. Emily is unsure about the idea because she has just started seeing Aaron and she genuinely likes her job. She promises to consider it, but later she tells Kristen she doesn’t think it’s a good idea because of the other stuff she has going on.
The next day is the final day of their trip. As they’re out for dinner, Emily returns to the table to see a guy that Kristen met, a backpacker from Spain named Paolo, has joined them. Eventually, Kristen invites him back to their place, and they head out. Emily says she’s going to stay and finish her drink and head back later. When Emily goes to pay for her drink, she realizes that her wallet went missing at some point.
Later, she finally heads back to the room. She is horrified to find a very upset Kristen, who says that he attacked her, and Paolo’s dead body laying on the floor.
They contemplate telling the police, but they reach the same conclusion as they had when they were in Cambodia — that they won’t believe them and she’ll be thrown in jail. They decide to drive the body out to the middle of nowhere and find a place to bury it.
As for getting to body out of there, they wrap the body in a shower curtain, and after checking that there’s no one outside, they get the body into the truck. They then break into a shed at their hotel and manage to find a shovel. They then drive about thirty minutes out to what appears to be an empty hillside and start to dig. By the time the body is buried, they are exhausted and head back.
Chapters 9 – 13
It’s morning when they get back. They finish cleaning the room and burn Paolo’s personal effects into a charred mass. Kristen takes the lump, saying she’ll dispose of it when she gets home. They head out to the airport at the time they originally intended and depart Chile. Kristen flies back to Sydney. When Emily arrives back in Milwaukee, Aaron arrives to pick her up.
Back at work, Emily is greeted warmly by her co-worker Priya, and she struggles not to think about what happened on the trip. When she talks to Kristen again, she’s unsettled by how unbothered Kristen seems and how eager she is to take another trip.
When she’s out with Aaron later, Emily ends up crying for no reason, but resists the urge to tell him what she’s really upset about. Instead, she heads home.
Emily soon meets with Adrienne Oderdonk, a therapist in her fifties who was recommended by Priya. She tries to tell Adrienne about her problems without getting into the ugly details.
Emily tells her that last year she was assaulted during a hookup and that it’s something she’s still not entirely over. She adds that her best friend had something similar happen to her just last week. She also says that she doesn’t have a lot of close friends other than Kristen and that she broke up with her previous boyfriend Colin after Kristen pointed out his flaws.
When Emily is hanging out with Priya, she’s surprised when Priya shows her how Kristen commented on one of Priya’s Instagram photos, since Kristen and Priya don’t know each other. The next few days, Emily finds herself keeping her distance from Kristen by not calling or texting her. She’s surprised, then, when Kristen suddenly shows up at her door.
Chapters 14 – 17
Kristen explains that she’s just here to surprise her and that she’s staying at her grandparents’ house. That night, they meet up with Aaron for dinner. Kristen explains that she was let go from her job, so she thought she might as well come hang out with Emily. Emily feels like she should be happier about Kristen being there than she actually feels.
Afterwards, Emily drives Kristen back to her grandparents Nana and Bill’s house and goes in to greet them. It was built near the same place where Kristen’s parents died in a house fire when she was 12. While Nana and Bill have always been genial towards Emily, Kristen describes them as being cruel and dismissive in private. Emily notices that they don’t seem all that happy to see Kristen. Before Emily leaves, Nana asks to exchange phone numbers with Emily just in case.
By that weekend, there still hasn’t been any news about Paolo’s murder, and Emily starts to hope that they might get away with it. Things are also going well with Aaron. Emily is being intimate with him when she ends up getting multiple missed calls and a text from Kristen saying “I need you”. She rushes to leave, only to call Kristen and find out that it’s nothing.
At her next therapy session, Emily talks to Adrienne about her parents, who divorced when she was 15. Emily describes them as being emotionally neglectful. She also talks about how she feels like she’s abandoning Kristen a little by wanting some space from her. However, Adrienne encourages Emily to focus on relationships other than just her friendship with Kristen. She also suggests that perhaps Kristen likes keeping Emily in a needy role in her life.
Chapters 18 – 19
Thursday is Emily’s birthday, and she has low-key plans with Aaron. Despite telling her not to, Kristen has planned a surprise for Emily which involves a scavenger hunt with a trail of clues. The first one leads her to Priya. The second one leads her to the doorman, who gives her a stuffed cat with the next clue on its collar that indicates she should go buy a latte.
There, she finds Aaron, who has a gift for her. At first, her excitement falters when she sees that it’s the green wallet she’d thought she’d lost that terrible night in Chile. However, it turns out to be a different, but similar wallet that Kristen had helped Aaron pick out for Emily. The wallet has a clue that leads to her boss, Russell, who tells her that Kristen convinced him to give her the rest of the week off.
Back at her apartment. Kristen greets her and says that they’re heading out to her grandparents’ lake house at Lake Novak. Kristen adds that Aaron agreed to cancel their dinner plans for that night. As they drive, Emily reflect on her relationship with Colin and wonders if she was too hasty to end that relationship because of what Kristen had said at the time.
Emily also sees a text arrive on Kristen’s phone approving Kristen’s rental application at a house a block and a half away from her apartment.
Chapters 20 – 23
At the lake house, they finally talk about that night in Chile, and Emily admits to being weirded out by how okay Kristen seems to be with all of it. Kristen says she’s upset too, but that she’s also upset that Emily now looks at her like she’s some type of monster. They end up both crying and comforting each other, and Emily feels herself feeling comfortable with Kristen again.
However, that night Emily sees an article reporting that the remains of a man, Paolo Garcia, have been found in a remote Chilean village. It turns out that Paolo was an American, from a wealthy family, and his family is hoping to bring his body back to the States. Emily is unnerved by all of this, but Kristen remains calm.
The next morning, on a tree outside, Emily sees a carving on a tree that reads “KC + JR” with the letters JR crossed out. She makes a mental note to ask Kristen about it.
Later that day, they go antiquing at a shop where Kristen used to go as a kid. She knows the owner, Greta, who comments that Emily resembles a girl that Kristen used to hang out with when she was little, Jamie Rusch. Greta also mentions that Jamie passed away. Afterwards, Emily asks Kristen about Jamie, but she answers vaguely, saying something about Jamie having died in an accident, and then she changes the topic.
Later, Emily asks why Kristen never talks about Jamie, but Kristen insists she’s mentioned her before. She also keeps changing the topic to prevent them from discussing Paolo further.
Instead, they talk about how Kristen was raised to be very religious (a “Jesus Freak”) by her grandparents, but she gave it all up after her parents died. Later, Emily thinks about the number of deaths Kristen had seen in her life — Sebastian, Paolo, both her parents, and Jamie, too.
Late that night, Emily sneaks into the storage boxes at the cabin where Kristen’s grandparents had stored her childhood belongings. Emily finds and old yearbook and looks for a photo of Jamie, but she sees that her face has been scribbled out everywhere in the yearbook.
Chapters 24 – 26
The next night, Kristen recounts some happy memories of her parents as Emily thinks about her own parents. Emily recalls how when she was young, she’d jumped into a pool and struggled to swim until another parent had saved her and comforted her. Her dad had simply chided her for jumping into a pool without knowing how to swim.
That night, Emily slips and hurts her foot when she sees a dead rabbit lying on the ground. She calls out for Kristen, who comes to her aid. Late that night, Emily finally has a chance to use the hotspot that Kristen had brought to the cabin and access the internet. She searches for “Jamie Rusch” and learns that Jamie killed herself on November 24th, 2001 — two weeks after Kristen’s parents died in a fire.
Back in town after the weekend is over, Emily meets with Adrienne and admits that she is uneasy with Kristen being back in town. She says it’s weird how Kristen is handling her assault (without mentioning what happened afterwards). She also admits that it feels like Kristen wants her all to herself.
Afterwards, Emily looks up the name of Kristen’s therapist, Dr. Lydia Brightside, who turns out to be a pediatric psychiatrist who specializes in conduct disorders at a place called Westmoor Behavioral Services.
According to reviews, Westmoor is a place where rich kids are sent by court order instead of juvenile detention. Emily ends up sends them a message and the response confirms that they only take in patients by referral from the court system of Wisconsin. They also confirm that Dr. Brightside does not take outside patients in private practice and has practiced there exclusively since the center opened.
Emily thinks back to Kristen describing how she was good at building fires and a separate comment about how her mother wasn’t supposed to be home the night her parents died in the fire. She wonders if Kristen killed any people in cold blood (as opposed to in self-defense).
Chapters 27 – 28
Emily soon learns that Paolo’s family is offering a $1 million reward for information about his death. The article also mentions how Paolo survived cancer as a child. When she goes home, she also has an e-mail from the hotel saying that the police are trying to reach out to anyone who was in the area around that time to see if anyone knows anything.
Emily soon tells her therapist that she had realized that perhaps her friendship with Kristen wasn’t entirely healthy and that perhaps she was wrong to break up with Colin. She doesn’t want the same thing to happen with Aaron, and she wants to break the pattern of their friendship.
As they’re talking, Adrienne mentions that she left her notebook in her office instead of having it on her. Emily starts to wonder in Kristen had quit her job (instead of being fired), and if Kristen had killed Paolo to create a new trauma to bind them together the way that the Cambodia incident did. When she gathers her things to leave, she’d surprised to find Kristen in Adrienne’s waiting room.
Kristen claims that Priya referred her to Adrienne and that she had finally decided to try therapy like Emily had recommended. However, Emily feels like Kristen is stalking her. Later that day, Kristen tells her that Adrienne has declined her as a patient due to conflict of interest and instead referred her to someone else.
Back at home, Emily looks over the clues that Kristen had left for her for her birthday, and she realizes that there was one last one hidden in the last clue that she didn’t pick up on before. It leads to Kristen’s Dropbox account where she had added a folder named “Chile”. Reading the birthday card that Kristen had given her, Emily is able to figure out the password for the folder. To her horror, inside there is a photo if Emily and Sebastian together.
Chapters 29 – 31
Seeing the photo, Emily sees it as a veiled threat and a reminder that Kristen has dirt on her. Emily starts to wonder if it will be possible for her to sever her ties with Kristen. Soon, Kristen casually drops by her place, but Emily feels weak and says she needs to lie down. In the process, Kristen sees what she has open on her computer (such as the articles about Kristen’s parents and Emily’s inquiry into Westmoor).
Kristen immediately gets angry. However, Emily responds angrily too about the photo. Kristen denies that it’s blackmail. Instead, she says she just wanted to remind Emily of it in case she was tempted to tell anyone about what had happened in Chile.
Emily then points out that Kristen was the one who killed Sebastian, but Kristen denies it, saying that Emily was the one who couldn’t stop kicking him (though that’s not what Emily remembers). Kristen leaves feeling hurt and angry, though Emily reassures her that she won’t be telling anyone about what happened in Cambodia or Chile.
Afterwards, Emily replays what happened in her mind, wondering if she is somehow misremembering what had happened with Sebastian or if she was just being manipulated by Kristen. Feeling overwhelmed, Emily calls Aaron and asks if he wants to get away for the weekend. He later confirms that he’s able to get off work.
The next day, Kristen calls and texts continuously, and Emily tries her best to ignore her. When she gets home, she sees she has a text with a screenshot of the South African Police Service tip line and a note that says “Don’t think I won’t turn over that photo.”
Chapters 32 – 36
When Emily finally calls her back, Kristen demands that Emily meet with her in person or else she says she’ll turn over the photo to the authorities. She goes to Nana and Bill’s house to find Kristen. There, Kristen starts talking about how traumatized she is. Emily says she just needs to get away for a few days to reset. Then, Kristen shows her that she still has the charred lump of what remains of Paolo’s stuff.
Before she leaves, Nana stops Emily, asking if everything is okay with Kristen. She says that Kristen has been acting upset. Before she can say more, Kristen pops up behind her, cutting off the conversation. On the way home, Emily texts Priya to warn her to steer clear of Kristen.
Emily and Aaron are soon on a plane headed for Phoenix, Arizona. On the way, there’s news that a witness has come forward regarding Paolo’s disappearance. A friend of his, Tiffany Yagasaki, was supposed to meet with him, but he hadn’t shown up. Emily text Kristen a coded message about the news item.
When they land, Aaron says that Kristen contacted him just before the trip and warned him that Emily was unstable. She’d also hinted that something bad had happened in Chile where Emily had hurt someone. Emily reassures him that it’s a lie, and she decides to tell him part of the truth. Emily tells him about the assault in Cambodia and how Kristen is possessive of her. As she talks, Emily realizes that telling Kristen about Aaron is what probably prompted her to kill Paolo in order to bring themselves closer.
The next day, Emily and Aaron are headed out to the beach when Kristen suddenly shows up. Meanwhile, the police have now released a sketch of an American woman they believe is connected to Paolo’s murder.
Chapters 37 – 39
When they’re alone, Kristen claims that she came because of the news about the investigation. Kristen then demands that Emily spend time with her, threatening the send the photo of Sebastian out otherwise. They end up arguing on a trail near a cliff. As they talk, Emily realizes how cornered she is.
Then, she thinks about how she (Emily) really was the one to kill Paolo, like Kristen had said. Finally, she reaches out and shoves Kristen.
Kristen ends up hanging precariously off the edge. In that instant, Emily realizes she can’t do this and knows she needs to save her. She pulls her up, and they stand there until Aaron comes driving up in their rental car. Kristen then shoves Emily into the car’s path. Aaron then swerves toward Kristen, but it causes both him and Kristen to go careening off the cliff.
Chapters 40 – 43
News soon reports the results of Paolo’s autopsy which shows that Paolo was first drugged, then killed.
Meanwhile, cops arrive at the scene in Arizona and question Emily. Afterwards, she heads to the hospital to see how they are doing. At the receptionist’s counter are people identifying themselves as Jennifer and Thomas Rusch, Jamie’s parents, who says that they are Kristen’s godparents.
They soon learn that Kristen is in emergency surgery and that Aaron expected to make a full recovery. When Jamie’s parents ask, Emily tells them the truth about Kristen — that the accident was the result of Kristen trying to push her off the cliff.
Jenny offers to drive Emily to her hotel to pick up some things. On the way, Emily asks Jenny about Jamie. She says that she knows Kristen is bad news. Kristen had Jamie “wrapped around her pinkie” until Jamie’s eventual suicide. She also says that Kristen had always been pushing Jamie to misbehave. Or Kristen would do bad things and then try to convince Jamie that Jamie was the one who had done those things.
Jenny continues, saying that Jamie had been being abused by her basketball coach, Kristen’s father. They later learned (via her diary) that Jamie had concluded that the only way to stop it was to kill him. Jamie decided to light the house on fire, thinking that Kristen’s mother wouldn’t be home, but instead they were all home. Kristen ended up fleeing the house safely, but her parents both died.
Later, Jenny had tried to tell Bill the truth about his son and what Jamie had done, but he didn’t want to hear it. Jenny also says that her husband doesn’t know about the abuse or that Jamie was the one who started the fire.
Chapters 44 – 45
When they return, they learn that Kristen has died. This means that Aaron could be charged with her murder.
When she’s able to talk to Aaron, Emily asks him why he showed up where she and Kristen were. He says that he knew she didn’t want Kristen there and that he’d seen the police sketch on the news of someone who looked like Kristen. He’d been worried that she was in trouble. Their conversation is interrupted when a nurse walks in and Aaron’s parents arrive.
The police also ask to talk to Emily again. They’ve identified that Kristen looks like someone the police are searching for in Chile and that she’d been down there during that timeframe. They’re also continuing to investigate what exactly happened on that clifftop in Phoenix, and others have reported that they saw Emily and Kristen arguing in the hotel lobby.
Back at the hospital, Emily finally tells Aaron the entire sordid story about Kristen, including the two murderers. She also says that now the police seem to suspect the she and him killed Kristen in order to shut her up. Emily then says that she’s not going to let him go down for this; instead she’d going to tell the police everything even though it implicates her. However, Aaron begs her to first talk to his uncle who is a lawyer.
Emily is warned to stay in the country while the police build their case against her. Meanwhile, Paolo’s family keep the media attention fixed on her, and Tiffany Yagasaki confirms that she met both Kristen and Emily that night in Chile. Emily is let go from Kibble.
Aaron’s uncle refers her to her lawyer Deirdre. Deirdre manages to establish the case to the Chilean authorities that the stuff that happened in Chile was the result of Kristen blackmailing Emily. Still, however, there was still the Arizona incident to be dealt with.
As the weeks pass, Aaron gets stronger. Eventually, Emily moves home and the news loses interest in the case. Deirdre seems to think Arizona is struggling to make a case against either her or Aaron, and nether of them are arrested. It helps too that eye-witnesses saw Kristen practically drag Emily outside and that it turn out Kristen had been fired from her job for assaulting her boss. Emily also learns that a bottle of Rohypnol was found in Kristen’s toiletry kit. Emily takes this as confirmation that Kristen drugged Paolo and that he likely never attacked Kristen.
Eventually, Aaron and Emily move in together. To pay off his medical bills, Emily finally agrees to do a 30-minute segment on cable for a price that amounts to 5x her annual salary.
In January, Deirdre confirms that the Arizona PD have dropped the case against either of them.
The book ends with Emily and Aaron on a trip to Turkey. They start talking to another female traveler, traveling alone. Emily introduces herself as “Joan” (the fake name she used to use when meeting new people with Kristen on their travels), and she introduces Aaron as “Dan”.