A short chapter near the end of Laura Dave’s sixth novel, The Last Thing He Told Me, stands out from the rest of the book. Titled “Everyone Should Take Inventory,” it’s an index of everything the protagonist, Hannah Hall, knows to be true about her husband, Owen Michaels.
“He would live on Pad Thai, given the choice. He never took off his wedding ring even to shower. He couldn’t turn off a movie, no matter how awful, until he’d made it to the credits. He loved taking his daughter for breakfast. He never ate breakfast.”
“That is the way we know somebody,” Dave tells TIME. “We know them in the quietest of moments, when we get to be the witness to someone’s life.”
The chapter is striking not just because of the writing—clear and sharp as a diamond—but also because, at this point in the story, everything Hannah thought she knew about her husband has been upended. And Owen has vanished.
An engineer building software to privatize online life, Owen works at a tech firm, The Shop, until it’s raided by the SEC and FBI. Then, Owen disappears, leaving behind a duffel bag filled with sixty thousand dollars for his 16-year-old daughter, Bailey, and a note for Hannah reading: “Protect her.”
Now, The Last Thing He Told Me has been adapted into a thriller miniseries, premiering Friday on Apple TV+, and starring Jennifer Garner as Hannah and Angourie Rice as Bailey. The show is co-created and executive produced by Dave and her husband, the screenwriter Josh Singer.
On the surface, The Last Thing He Told Me is a propulsive mystery about what happened to Owen (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Where did he go and why? But just beneath, a larger story unfurls about motherhood and the unconventional ways that family can form. Hannah and Bailey are familiar with loss, even before Owen’s abrupt disappearance. Bailey’s mother, Owen’s first wife, died in a hit-and-run incident when she was young. Hannah’s own parents were “largely uninterested in doing any child-rearing,” and she was raised by her grandfather.
“My mother left by choice, Bailey’s by tragedy, but it leaves a similar imprint on you either way,” Hannah thinks at an early point in the novel. “It leaves you in the same strange place, trying to figure out how to navigate the world without the most important person watching.”
The book and the show find Hannah and Bailey reeling and—unsure of what to do with themselves—embarking on an urgent quest to find Owen, or at the very least to find out why he fled. Bailey is pure teenager: purple-pink streaks in her hair, obsessed with musical theater, and deeply resistant toward any type of relationship with her stepmother. But as Hannah proves herself over and over to her stepdaughter—by always giving her a choice in what they do—Bailey slowly warms up to her.
The series stays largely faithful to the novel, incorporating in one more character to help flesh out Bailey’s background. Writing can access interiority in a way that television can’t, so rather than hearing Hannah’s thoughts, the show reveals more backstory: between Hannah and her grandfather, between Owen and his former father-in-law (David Morse), and about the U.S. Marshall (Augusto Aguilera) assigned to the case.
Creating The Last Thing He Told Me was one way to “lean into the idea that no version of motherhood is more honorable, more important, more ‘natural,’” Dave writes in a Q&A included in the back of the book. “We often become mothers to people we don’t birth, we find our families in people we may not have planned for, we define home and love in ways that may be more generous and fulfilling than our younger selves could have imagined.”
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Speaking with TIME on an unseasonably warm April day, Dave says she felt like a mother long before she had her own child—she already had five godchildren. “And I have friends who I’ve been friends with since I’m three years old, and the phone rings at 4 a.m. and I’m on a plane for them,” she says. “Friendship can count as motherhood. I love the different ways we figure out how to show up for each other.”
In the show, Hannah’s best friend from childhood, Jules (Aisha Tyler), and Jules’ partner Max (Tyner Rushing) are a second family for Hannah and Bailey. After Hannah and Bailey spend a long, hard day judging Owen’s actions in the town of Sausalito, Calif., Jules and Max deliver pizza and ice cream to the overwhelmed pair. “Hey, little one,” Jules tells Bailey, wrapping her in a hug. “Should we split a pizza or just get right into the coconut and salty caramel?” “I’ll get the spoons,” Bailey replies, clearly comforted.
The idea for The Last Thing He Told Me began brewing for Dave more than twenty years ago. In 2002, she saw an NBC interview with Linda Lay, the wife of Enron founder and C.E.O. Kenneth Lay, in the aftermath of the accounting scandal surrounding the energy company. It made her wonder: Can we ever know the people we love the most?
In 2011, Dave married screenwriter and producer Josh Singer (who won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Spotlight), and one of their wedding gifts was a woodturned bowl, which would inspire Hannah’s profession as a woodturner, using spinning wood lathe to sculpt bowls, tables, and furniture. In 2016, Dave gave birth to her son, which made her realize that The Last Thing He Told Me was, at its base level, about motherhood. And as Dave was struggling through writing, Singer asked a question that allowed her to spin her thoughts in a different direction: What if Owen was bad? (The eventual character is more complicated than a good/bad binary.)
In 2021, The Last Thing He Told Me became a bestseller (spending 65 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list), and soon Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine had purchased the rights to make the story into a miniseries. Singer had never adapted a piece of fiction before, and he wanted to preserve its strengths while delving further into the backstories of its characters.
“I want this to be something that people who love the book will love the show,” Singer tells TIME. “And will find moments and chestnuts in the show that take you deeper.”
Dave says each of her books is a love letter to one specific person. Her 2015 novel Eight Hundred Grapes was for Singer, her favorite person and her favorite writer. The Last Thing He Told Me is for her son, who she hopes will watch the show one day.
“I hope that what he would take away is that underneath it all, hopefully, what connects us is that we do whatever we need to do for the next generation,” Dave says. “And, simultaneously, that he gets to decide what his love looks like. He’s the determining factor, nobody else.”
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