Can we agree that the unreliable narrator has been used so much in recent mystery/suspense fiction that it’s starting to become a cliche?
Part of what makes The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Gone Girl work is that the reader becomes invested in the characters in the story, so when the reveal comes that our narrator is unreliable, it’s a clever shock that (looking back) we should have been coming.
Alas, Beautiful Bad overlooks the lesson of having the reader invest in the characters, so when the various twists and turns start to pile on late in the story, they’re not so much earned but seemingly feel inevitable — and not in a good way.
The story starts off in media res, giving us details on the police showing up to the home of Maddie and Ian, where something bad has happened. It then jumps around in time, showing us the unfolding drama that led up to the night in question in which (wait for it….) someone died under mysterious and problematic circumstances.
Jumping around in time, the story catalogs the romance of Maddie and Ian (if you can call it that), how it split two best friends Maddie and Joanna and then offers glimpses into Maddie’s therapy sessions following a life-altering incident. Honestly, part of my problem with the book comes down to the central love triangle of Maddie/Ian/Joanna (and there’s even Ian’s crazy ex-girlfriend who keeps lurking about, but the less said about her, the better), never really gels into anything all that interesting.
A lot of it stems from a lack of investment in any of these characters — and more a desire to reach into the page and tell everyone involved to grow the heck up already. The story and situations make it difficult to believe that Maddie is attracted to Ian, much less that these two would wait around for each other for seven-plus years before getting married and starting a family.
And then, we get to the twists and turns of the second half of the book. Maddie has a mysterious accident while camping that leaves her permanently scarred physically and emotionally. The novel offers hints of what might have happened that night in an attempt to keep readers second-guessing what we know about the characters and situation. We even get a chapter or two from Ian’s point of view so maybe we can understand a bit of where he’s coming from in this situation.
It all keeps drawing us back to the night in question and the death of a character. Honestly, by the time we get there, I’d pretty much sussed out what was going on. But I was less interested in finding out the impact on the characters than I was in seeing if I’d deduced the solution correctly as I went through the final third of the novel.
There are some flashes of something more to this novel in isolated moments. But this one is probably the literary equivalent of a Lays’ potato chip — vaguely satisfying while you’re chewing on it, but it isn’t going to provide much long-term nutritional value.
I wanted to like this one a lot more than I did.