A solid domestic-noir thriller with a familiar plot, unlikely to surprise those who love Hitchcock movies and habitual readers of thrillers
Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collins for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely decided to review.
I have been reading a lot of thrillers recently and kept coming across this book and, eventually, I thought I would read it. The description and the accolades mention Hitchcock and noir film and that convinced me I should read it.
Many of the reviews compare it to The Girl on the Train. Although I have watched the movie adaptation of that book, I haven’t read the novel, so I cannot compare the style, although yes, I agree that the story is very similar. This is more Rear Window (because the protagonist, Anna Fox, a psychologist, suffers from agoraphobia following a traumatic incident, and she is stuck at home, in New York) with touches of Body Double (I agree with the reviewer who mentioned that). It also brought to mind, for me, apart from the many Hitchcock and noir movies the character herself is so fond of (Shadow of a Doubt, The Lady Vanishes, Rope), some newer movies, like Copycat (the main protagonist is also a psychologist suffering from agoraphobia, in that case after being assaulted by a serial killer) and Murder by Numbers (that is a new treatment of Rope).
Anna is an unreliable narrator, and she tells us the story in the first-person (I know some readers don’t like that). I do like unreliable narrators, but I did not feel there was much new or particularly insightful here. She is a psychologist who seems to be able to help others with their problems (she joins an online chat and helps others suffering from agoraphobia) but is not capable of fully accepting or recognising her own (she sees a psychiatrist once a week but lies to him, does not take the medication as prescribed, keeps drinking alcohol despite being fully aware of its depressant effects and knowing that it should not be mixed with her medication), and lies to others, and what is worse, to herself. The fog produced by the alcohol and her erratic use of medication make her unreliable (and yes, some of her medication can cause hallucinations, so there’s that too), and although her predicament and her agoraphobia are well portrayed, because a big twist (that if you’ve read enough books will probably suspect from very early on) needs to remain hidden, for plot reasons, it is difficult to fully empathise with her. She is intelligent, she loves old movies, and she’s articulate (although her intelligence and her insight are dulled by her own behaviour and her state of mind), but we only get a sense of who she really is (or was, before all this) quite late in the book, and yes, perhaps she is not that likeable even then (in fact, she might become even less likeable after the great reveal). Don’t get me wrong. I’ve loved books where the main protagonist is truly dislikeable, but I am not sure that is intentional here, and I felt that the character follows the plot and accommodates to its needs, rather than the other way round.
The rest of the characters… well, we don’t know. As we see them from Anna’s perspective, and this is impaired, there is not much to guide us. She is paranoid at times and can change from totally depending on somebody and thinking they are the only person who can help her, to dismissing them completely (that detail is well portrayed), but although some of the characters are potentially intriguing, we don’t know enough about any of them to get truly interested. This is a novel about Anna, her disintegrating mind, the lies she tells herself, and how her being in the wrong place at the wrong time (or rather, looking at the wrong place at the wrong time) almost ends her life. For me, the needs of the plot and of making it an interesting page-turner end up overpowering some of the other elements that I think are truly well achieved (like her mental health difficulties).
The writing style is fluid and competent, and it is evident that the writer knows what readers of the genre will expect (yes, from his biography is easy to see he knows the knots and bolts of the profession), although, personally, I think people who don’t read thrillers regularly will find it more interesting than those who read them often, as avid thriller readers are likely to spot the twists and expect what is coming next early on. The agoraphobia aspects of the story are well written (and from his biography it is clear that the author has a first-hand knowledge of the condition), although I agree with some comments that the many mentions of the wine spilling down the carpet or on the character’s clothes, of opening another bottle, and abandoning a glass of wine somewhere could have been reduced, and we would still have got the message.
Lovers of film-noir and Hitchcock movies will enjoy the references to the films, some very open, and others more subtle, although the general level of the character’s awareness and her wit reduces as the book moves on due to the stress and pressure Anna is under. The ending… Well, I’m trying not to write any spoilers so I’ll keep my peace, although, let’s say you might enjoy the details, but there are not that many possible suspects, so you might guess correctly. (Yes, it does follow the standard rules).
In my opinion, this is a well-written book, that perhaps tries too hard to pack all the elements that seem required nowadays to make it big in the thriller genre: a female unreliable narrator, domestic problems (domestic noir), meta-fictional references to other books and films, twists and turns galore, witty dialogue (not so much, but yes, especially early on Anna can quote with the best of them), an action filled ending with a positive/hopeful message. I enjoyed the descriptions of Anna’s agoraphobia and, particularly, the way the house becomes another character (that is what I felt gave it most of its noir feel). People who don’t read many thrillers or watch many movies in the genre are more likely to be surprised and thrilled than those who do, as the storyline will be very familiar to many. I am intrigued to see what the writer will produce next, and I am not surprised to hear that the book’s film adaptation rights have been already bought. That figures.