Virginia Feito – Mrs March

Virginia Feito – Mrs March

Mrs March leads the classic life of a New York upper class housewife and mother. Her husband George is a successful writer whose latest novel has catapulted him to the top of the bestseller list. Mrs March was raised to this life, from her childhood on, she has learnt how to behave in society and how to present herself and her family in an adequate way. Yet, her whole life has somehow become only a scenery of a life and she has lost herself. When a young woman’s body is found, she is intrigued and soon she finds more and more evidence that her husband’s inspiration might not just come out of himself and his imagination but might actually stem from actual experience. Is she sharing her bed with a murderer?

Virginia Feito’s debut novel “Mrs March” is an intense psychological study of a woman who has lost connection to reality and is gradually plummeting into an abyss. Brilliantly the author shows how a strongly self-controlled character more and more loses power over her life and in the end can hardly distinguish between what is real and what is only imagined.

It is quite clever how the protagonist is presented to the reader, she is only ever referred to as “Mrs March” thus defined by her status as a married woman and without a first name. She is not given anything that she brings into the marriage from her childhood. From her flashbacks you learn that her parents treated her rather coolly and that she has always felt like not doing anything right, not being the daughter they had hoped for, not fulfilling the expectations, until, finally, they can hand her over to her husband. The only persons she could bond with was her – rather malicious – imagined friend Kiki and a household help, yet, she couldn’t cope with positive feelings since this concept was totally alien to her.

Behind the facade of the impeccable woman is a troubled mind. First, it is just the assumption that people talk behind her back, compare her to her husband’s latest novel’s protagonist – not very flattering since this is a prostitute who is paid out of pity instead of for good service rendered – then she sees cockroaches and finds more and more signs which link George with the murder of the young woman the whole country is talking about. From her point of view, it a fits together perfectly, but she does not see how she herself increasingly fractures. Most of the plot happens behind closed doors, she does not have friends or family she is close to, thus, there is nobody to help her.

As readers, we know exactly where she is headed to and then, Virginia Feito confronts us with an unexpected twist which lets you reassess what you have just read. The distinction between reality and paranoia sometimes isn’t that clear at all.

A wonderfully written, suspenseful kind of gothic novel set in New York’s upper class whose signs of class affiliation are repeatedly mocked while also showing that not all is well just because you live in a posh apartment and can wear expensive clothes.

Jo Spain – The Perfect Lie

Jo Spain – The Perfect Lie

Erin and her husband Danny are the perfect couple and still totally in love when, one morning, Danny’s partner appears unexpectedly at their door and Danny jumps to death. When Erin starts asking questions about the why, the police remain quiet, she only learns that there must have been some internal investigation and that obviously her husband wasn’t the good cop she has always assumed. Yet, a lot of things are strange and when Erin is approached by a guy named Cal who tells her that she shouldn’t believe the rumours because Danny wanted to help his sister against all obstacles within the police, she does not know what to believe anymore. Eighteen months later, she finds herself in court – charged with murdering her husband. How could things turn out so badly?

Again, Jo Spain has created a suspenseful novel in which nothing is as it appears at first glance. “The Perfect Lie” is not just around one lie, but around many lies, things left unsaid, bits and pieces which form a perfect picture but couldn’t be farer from reality. Since the story is narrated at different points in time, you quite naturally interpret the action based on what you know at that moment, just to learn a bit later that all your assumptions were totally wrong since you were lacking that relevant piece of information.

Erin is in her early thirties when she is confronted with the most tragic event imaginable: witnessing her husband committing suicide. Yet, this does not leave her grieving in shock and incapable of action. However, her questions are greeted with rejection and she is treated in the most horrible way by the police and her husband’s former colleagues and friends. No wonder she turns to the people who are willing to help her and one can only wonder why so many behave in this way. Suspense, however, is mainly created by the fact that she finds herself accused of murder only months later. As a reader, you witness the moment Danny decides to take his life, all is clear so quite naturally, it is totally unbelievable how this could have been turned against the widow. How far would police go to cover any trace of misconduct?

I was gripped form the start and couldn’t put down the novel once I had read the first chapter. Spain perfectly plays with our conviction to understand a situation based on the bits of information we have just to demonstrate that maybe we came to a conclusion a bit too quickly since things are not always what they seem. A superb read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Danielle McLaughlin – The Art of Falling

Nessa McCormack and her husband Philip have just sorted out their marriage after Philip’s affair when ghosts of the past reappear. Her former best friend’s son Luke and his father Stuart appear out of nowhere after almost two decades without any contact. After Luke’s mother’s suicide they did not stay in touch, not only because times where difficult but also because Nessa and Stuart had a brief affair. Also at work things become complicated when Nessa is curating an exhibition of sculptor Robert Locke and a mysterious woman appears who claims to have created the most impressive piece of the exhibition. Yet, Locke’s widow and daughter claim to have provided all materials and never to have heard of the woman. However, she has set her mind on finally being recognised as an artist.

The most striking about Danielle McLaughlin’s novel is the protagonist and her development throughout the story. Apart from this, the dynamics between the characters is also remarkable, set in motion by the classic sins which you can find almost all in the novel: pride, lust, greed, wrath, sloth – you name it. They have always belonged to mankind, so why not to 21st century characters, too?

At the beginning of the novel, Nessa is on the one hand disappointed and fells devalued by her husband since he not only had an affair but chose a woman who isn’t even the slightest attractive in her opinion. On the other hand, her husband’s misconduct brings her into a morally superior position which she quite unashamedly exploits. She has got a big project in her job which will automatically come with a lot of kudos, undoubtedly, she is good at what she’s doing and an expert of the sculptor she curates. But small lapses leave cracks and with the appearance of the mysterious woman, the cracks start to deepen and threaten her reputation. At the same time, her daughter first seems to be on her husband’s side – the cheater! – and then openly opposes her mother to take sides of the other woman. There is not much left in her life which works according to plan and Nessa becomes increasingly irritable – until a secret, well-kept for many years – suddenly surfaces and threatens to destroy it all.

A lot of moral questions are addressed in the novel without providing simplistic answers or role models. The dramatic structure also creates the suspense that keeps you reading on.  A compelling read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Austin Duffy – Ten Days

Austin Duffy – Ten Days

When his wife Miriam days from cancer, Wolf has to take care of their 16-year-old daughter Ruth whom he hardly knows since the couple has been separated for quite some time. Miriam had one last wish: to have her ashes scattered in the Hudson River. Thus, Wolf and Ruth leave London for New York where he also hopes his daughter can find a new home with his former wife’s Jewish family. They arrive at the holy season between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; Wolf has never really been religious and also their daughter has not been raised to follow religious traditions. Yet, with Miriam’s believing relatives, conflicts lie at hand. They only seem to have one mission, yet, there is something else the father has to announce to his daughter.

Austin Duffy’s novel “Ten Days” tells the story of people who have to cope with the loss of a beloved mother and wife. Even though they have not been living as a couple anymore, Wolf’s memories come back when he shows Ruth where they met, where their first kiss took place and where everything began. It seems to be quite difficult for him to deal with his intelligent and at times rebellious teenage daughter, however, the more the narration advances the more questions arise about Wolf’s behaviour which becomes not only quarrelsome but strange.

I totally enjoyed the novel since the characters are lively drawn and really appear to be authentic in the way they try to make sense of Miriam’s death. Ruth is quite independent and strong-willed, when Wolf’s secret is revealed, however, we also get to know another side of her character.

Not a totally emotional read, much more a slow novel which makes you ponder.

Marie Benedict – The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

Marie Benedict – The Mystery of Mrs Christie

An abandoned car brings the police to Styles, the famous residence of Agatha and Archibald Christie. The famous writer has gone missing after a fierce quarrel between the couple during breakfast. Archie does not seem concerned at all and he is astonishingly reluctant to cooperate with the investigators. For the detectives, his behaviour is highly suspicious and even more so when they uncover an affair he has had for quite some time and because of which he asked his wife for a divorce. Yet, all this information is not really helpful in determining the whereabouts of the grand dame of crime. This is one way the story can be told, but maybe there is also a completely different version.

“Then the phone rang, shattering my lonely vigil. When I picked it up, I nearly cried in relief to hear a familiar voice. But then the voice spoke. And in that moment, I knew that everything had changed.”

Agatha Christie’s disappearance in December 1926 is, due to broad media coverage, a well known fact. However, the mystery has never been really solved and the crime writer herself did not comment on what actually happened during the ten days of her absence. Marie Benedict, by whom I already totally adored the portrait of Hedy Lamarr in “The Only Woman in the Room”, fills this gap with a very clever story which especially enthused my due to the tone which perfectly copies the crime writer’s style.

The narration tells the events of two points in time alternatingly. The first recounts how Agatha and Archie met, their first years during WW1 and their quick marriage which is immediately followed by darker years stemming from Archie’s depressive and dark moods. The second point of time follows the events after her disappearance. The first is shown from Agatha’s point of view, the later gives more insight in Archie’s state of mind thus revealing a lot to the reader but at the same time, omitting very relevant pieces of information which keeps suspense at a high level.

Even though it is a mystery, it is also the story of a woman who wants her marriage to succeed, who is willing to put herself and her daughter second after her husband’s needs and who fights even though there is nothing to win anymore. However, she does not breakdown but emerges stronger and wiser since she used her cleverness and capacity of plotting to free herself of her marital chains.

Rachel Hawkins – The Wife Upstairs

Rachel Hawkins – The Wife Upstairs

Jane is on the run, she hasn’t simply given up her old life, there are things which need to be forgotten und buried and never talked about. When she comes to Thornfield Estates, the McMansion area of Birmingham/Alabama, she sees a life which could hardly differ more from hers. Having grown up as a foster child, she has never known love and affection and surely not the riches she can observe in the families for whom she walks the dogs. One day, she meets Eddie Rochester who recently lost his wife Bea. They fall in love and suddenly, everything seems possible for Jane. Leading a carefree life, no worries about money anymore and a loving husband. But at times, she wonders if she sees something different, threatening in his eyes. Then, however, she remembers that she herself also has some secrets. Yet, there is a third person in that house also having secrets.

Rachel Hawkins does not hide that her novel is a modern version of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”. The names are identical and even parts of the characters’ biographies show large similarities, only small Adèle has been turned into a dog. The plot is not set among the British upper class but among the newly rich who are driven by greed, egoism and the conviction that they can have it all.

What I liked about this version of the classic plot is that Rachel Hawkins created some unexpected twists which keep suspense high and make you reassess the characters. You can never be totally sure about who is good and who is bad, actually, they are all some dark shade of grey. I would have liked the protagonist to be a bit more complex, Jane remains a bit plain and shallow throughout the novel for my liking even though the other characters repeatedly consider her rather clever and strong. On the other hand, everything around Bea was quite surprising and I actually adored the utterly malicious character.

An enjoyable read with a lot of Jane Eyre to be found and some new aspects which added to the suspense.

Megan Hunter – The Harpy

Megan Hunter – The Harpy

Lucy is a loving wife and mother of two small boys. Even though she at times regrets not having finished her doctorate, her life is quite close to perfect, at least from the outside. Until she gets a voice message informing her of her husband Jake’s affair with his colleague. Jake immediately admits everything, yet, it wasn’t a single misstep, but actually three. They agree not to give up everything they have built up and Lucy is allowed to hurt him three times, too. What he does not know is that forever, she has been fascinated by harpies, the mythological creatures symbolising the underworld and evil. Thus, Lucy’s revenge is not small but a thoroughly made-up, destructive plan of vengeance.

A couple of years ago, I read Megan Hunter’s post-apocalyptic debut “The End We Start From” and liked it a lot, thus I was eager to read her latest novel “The Harpy” which did more than fulfil my expectations. The atmosphere is burning, the idea of the dreadful mythological creatures always looming over the action. Quite often, the harpy is used to depreciate a nasty woman. Lucy can be considered nasty in what she does, however, the betrayal she has to endure is no less harmful.

Of course, Lucy’s revenge is the central aspect of the plot. Yet, it is not just their marriage that is under scrutiny, the whole circle Lucy and Jake move in comes to a closer inspection. Superficial friendships which end immediately end when someone does not comply with the unwritten rules, feigned sympathy and kindness – isn’t this world an awful one to live in? Plus the reduction of an intelligent woman to caring mother who becomes invisible as a woman and is considered little more than a domestic worker for the family, a life surely man find themselves in involuntarily.

From a psychological point of view, the novel is also quite interesting, depicting Lucy’s transformation from loving housewife to independent and reckless avenging angel. She frees herself from the clichés she has lived to so long and goes beyond all boundaries. A beautifully written brilliant novel that I enjoyed thoroughly.

Raven Leilani – Luster

raven leilani luster
Raven Leilani – Luster

Edie, a 23-year-old artist, is somehow stumbling through her life. She does not have a stable partnership and the men she encounters are certainly not the ones to plan a future together, well she does not even know if that is what she wants. When she meets Eric, again, this does not seem to go beyond sex since he is twice her age, married and without the least intention of leaving his wife and daughter. When Edie finds herself suddenly unemployed without money or place to stay, something quite extraordinary happens: Eric’s wife invites her to live with them. However, it is clear who sets the rules: Rebecca.

Raven Leilani’s novel “Luster” has been named among the most anticipated novels of 2020, thus, I was quite curious to read it. The constellation of inviting the young mistress of one’s husband to live in the same house seemed quite promising for an interesting battle between two women. However, I struggled a bit with it, maybe this is due to the fact that the author quickly moves away from the central conflict and the protagonist remains a bit too bland for my liking.

When moving to the Walker family’s house, Eric is away on a business trip. Instead of having two grown-up women who have to negotiate their respective place in the household, Edie turns into another kid who is bossed around by Rebecca and forced into the role of a nanny and tutor for Akila, Rebecca and Eric’s daughter. She herself does not appear to actually dislike this arrangement and easily gives in to it. Rebecca, on the other hand, is not the self-confident and successful women, her behaviour towards Edie is quite harsh but only because she is weak and in this way wants to secure her place.

There are some minor aspects which I found quite interesting but which did not really blend into the story such as Akila and the fact that she is black and adopted. She and Edie become the victim of police brutality – a brief scene which is not pursued on a psychological, societal or political level and of which, there, the function remains unclear to me. This happens at several points where the characters find themselves in a crucial emotional situation which is not elaborated and makes them all appear a bit inanimate, like actors on a stage who perform a role in which they feel awkward and which they cannot really identify with.

Edie is neither a representative of a lost generation who does not know what to expect from a highly uncertain future, nor is she a special individual who struggles after some major life event. She also does not really develop throughout the novel which, all in all, makes her shallow and admittedly quite uninteresting. Maybe the plot might have been much more appealing from Rebecca’s or Akila’s point of view.

Jackie Kabler – The Perfect Couple

jackie kabler the perfect couple
Jackie Kabler – The Perfect Couple

Life has been perfect for Gemma and her husband Danny. The successful journalist and IT specialist have decided to flee busy London and settle in Bristol in a nice home where the quality of living is higher. When Gemma returns one Friday evening only three weeks after their move, she expects Danny to be at home waiting for her with dinner. However, their house is deserted, no sign that her partner has been at home after work. First, she is only slightly concerned, working overtime is not unusual in his job, but not getting hold of him makes her wonder. After changing his job, he hasn’t gotten a new mobile phone and thus, they only communicate via e-mail which he doesn’t answer. Gemma bravely waits two days, becoming increasingly frightened before she contacts the police for filing a missing persons’ report. What she learns then is that two men looking like Danny’s twins have been murdered in the area and soon she finds herself prime suspect in a serial killer case as strangely, there is not the least sign in her home of Danny ever having lived there with her. What is she actually hiding?

Jackie Kabler’s mystery novel starts quite typical for a thriller, you are immediately thrown into the plot and discover the vanishing of her husband together with Gemma. Thus, you get her growing concern first hand and can easily follow her thoughts. When the police’s side of the story is told, the author switches the point of view and leaves you quite quickly in the positing where you wonder if either you were fooled by Gemma who seemingly has set up some very good murder plot or if the woman suffers from some kind of serious mental troubles and even only imagined to have a husband whom strangely hardly anybody seems to have known. On the other hand, there is some creepy feeling that Danny might have taken advantage of Gemma for some scheme of his own, they haven’t been married that long and he proposed only weeks after they had gotten to know each other.

I totally adored the constant insecurity about whom to trust and what to believe; the more you learn about the characters and the further the events develop, you have to adapt your opinion and change sides more than once. Some unexpected twists and turns keep you hooked to the novel and make it hard to put it down. “The Perfect Couple” is a psychological thriller with an interestingly drawn protagonist and a surprising storyline which make a thrilling and gripping read.

Angie Cruz – Dominicana

angie-cruz-dominicana
Angie Cruz – Dominicana

Ana has always been an extraordinarily pretty child, so when she becomes a teenager, her parents see this as a chance to escape their poor situation. At the age of fifteen, she is married to one of the Ruiz brothers, a family making a fortune in the US which allows them to control more and more land in the Dominican Republic. Ana has to follow her new husband to New York where she lives in a poor, rundown apartment and the promises of being able to go to school are soon forgotten. She has to serve Juan and his brothers and if she doesn’t obey or dares to speak up, he shows her with brutal force who has the say in their home. She becomes more and more desperate and finally develops a plan to flee, but she underestimates her new family.

Angie Cruz’s novel is set in the 1960s, but her protagonist’s fate could be as real in 2020. Young and naive girls fall prey to seducing men or are forced by their parents to leave their home country for a supposedly better life abroad where they, with the status as an illegal immigrant, hardly have a chance to escape their domestic situation which is often marked by poverty, oppression and being exposed to violence of all kinds by their domineering husbands. Dependence due to lack of language knowledge often combined with isolation makes them sooner or later give up all opposition and succumbing to the life they are forced to live.

It is easy to sympathise with Ana; at the beginning, she is a lively girl with dreams and vivid emotions even though she has also experienced her parents’ strict and at times brutal education. She is quite clever, nevertheless, the new life in New York overburdens her and she needs some time to accommodate and develop coping strategies. However, then, she becomes the independent thinker I had hoped for, but never egoistically does she only think about herself, she also reflects what any step could mean for her family at home whose situation with the political turmoil of 1965 worsens dramatically.

A wonderful novel about emancipation and a strong-willed young woman which allows a glance behind normally closed doors.