With the success of Gone Girl, it seems like a lot of “he said, she said” suspense thrillers are jumping on the bandwagon, hoping to be the next big seller. A recent book review column in Entertainment Weekly offered up a couple of novels that are attempting to follow in Gillian Flynn’s footsteps with novels featuring unreliable narrators and potential twists and turns as the story unfolds.
Intrigued by the list, I picked up a few of the novels and came away with some interesting thoughts on each one. Of the five novels reviewed, I was only able to get my hands on three of them easily via the library and the good folks at the Amazon Vine program. And while each of these novels contains a cover blurb comparing it to Gone Girl, I think that it’s unfair to all three of these books and to Flynn’s novel to compare them all. These books can and should rise and fall on their own merits — and one of them doesn’t even follow the same story telling structure of alternating first-person points of view that Gone Girl does.
First up was A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife. With a cover blurb from Elizabeth George (one of my favorite authors) I was probably a bit biased toward the book even before I turned the first page or read the first chapter. The good news is the novel lives up to the praise given to it by George (and a host of other literary thriller writers who also tout its virtues on the back cover). And yet, this novel isn’t necessarily what I’d consider a standard mystery. It’s more a psychological examination of the relationship of Jodi and Todd.
Jodi and Todd’s once perfect relationship is crumbling around them. Todd is having an affair with one of his closest friend’s daughters and Jodi is entirely aware of it. The novel alternates point of view between the two and allows us to glimpse inside their relationship. While the two have been together for close to twenty years, Jodi long ago decided she need to marry Todd to legitimize the relationship, if you will. This leaves her in awkward position when Todd reveals he’s having the affair and leaving her for the new, younger model who is expecting his child. Under the eyes of the law, Todd will not have to give Jodi any kind of financial support when their relationship dissolves.
Pressured by his soon-to-be-bride and his lawyer, Todd begins to place pressure on Jodi to move out of their apartment and to get back on her own two feet. A trained psychologist, Jodi has a limited practice, but not one robust enough to support herself.
A compelling character study of multiple flawed people and several relationships gone horribly wrong, The Silent Wife is a sneaky, compelling and absorbing story. Harrison creates sympathy, empathy, disdain and disbelief in each of the characters and while there’s a bit of a twist at the end, it feels completely earned and not so huge that it overwhelms or overshadows everything that’s come before.
That’s not necessarily the case with Karen Perry’s The Innocent Sleep. Opening up in Tangiers, we meet Harry, Robin and their three-year-old son, Dillon. While preparing an anniversary dinner for Robin, Harry realizes that he’s left the gift for his wife at a friend’s house. He slips out, leaving their son sleeping because he’ll only be gone for a few moments.
Things turn tragic with an earthquake rattles the city and Dillon is killed. The couple move home to Dublin and a few years later, Harry is convinced he’s seen his son alive and well at a local parade. Harry becomes obsessed with finding his son and slowly begins to alienate Robin. The two are on a bit of shaky ground anyway with Harry having an affair and his resenting Robin for giving up her dream of being an artist and taking another job.
Interestingly, both parties are hiding things from each other in the novel. The point of view alternates between the two and while the novel attempts to sow the seeds as to why Harry believes he saw his son at the parade, I’m afraid the twist (once revealed) undermines a lot of what comes before in the novel’s first three-quarters. The ending makes sense, but it’s not necessarily quite as satisfying as I’d hoped it would be or as it could have been. I won’t say more about it than that so I don’t ruin the enjoyment for those of you haven’t read it yet and want to do so. But I will say that this one should be approached with moderated expectations.
Finally, there’s the novel Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty. The novel sets up that the first-person narrator is guilty of the crime from the opening pages and then slowly begins to fill in the details and justifications for the crime over the course of the novel. For the most part, it works well — and that all lies in the fact that narrator, Yvonne Carmichael, is interesting and complicated enough to keep me turning the pages. I’m not a huge fan of the story that tells us the shocking ending and then goes back to fill in the details so we understand why something is happening. But I will give this one credit that it does a solid job and uses this technique well enough to hold the interest.
Of the three, I was most compelled by The Silent Wife and would wholeheartedly recommend it. The other two are good and I would recommend them with a few reservations to temper your expectations.
In the interest of full disclosure, I received an ARC of The Innocent Sleep from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review. The other two novels were checked out of my local library.