Author, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Virginia Feito

‘Mrs March’ by Virginia Feito

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 304 pages; 2021.

I have been reading some quite serious and heavy books recently (some of which are yet to be reviewed), so how delightful it was to pick up Virginia Feito’s Mrs March for some wickedly good fun!

Set in New York’s exclusive Upper East Side, this debut novel tells the story of the titular Mrs March, who is married to celebrated author George March, a man 11 years her senior, to whom she is devoted, mainly because of the status and wealth his success brings. (They’ve been married a long time and it’s fair to say her love for him has waned somewhat.)

So imagine her horror when one day, out buying her regulation olive bread from the local patisserie shop, she discovers that readers believe that Johanna, the lead character in George’s latest bestselling book, is based on her. She’s outraged because Johanna is a whore past her prime, and Mrs March is a fine upstanding citizen, albeit slightly fake and needy, who believes that appearances are everything.

Distraught by this news, she comes home and pulls George’s book from the shelf. In the acknowledgements she notices that she has been thanked as “a constant source of inspiration”:

Mrs March clutched her breast, breathing hard, faintly aware that tears were falling amidst convulsive gasps. Then she shook the book, smashed it against the desk, opened it to the author photograph on the jacket flap, clawed out George’s eyes, scratched out the threaded spine, and pulled out fistfuls of pages—which flew around the room like feathers.

Losing her grip on reality

From this moment on, Mrs March’s behaviour becomes increasingly more bizarre and deranged. Having snooped in George’s study for more evidence, she discovers a newspaper clipping of a young woman who has gone missing and she somehow gets it into her head that her husband has murdered her. What follows is a slippery slope of mental anguish and upset, morphing into paranoia and a conviction that her husband is guilty.

Mrs March’s behaviour becomes farcical. But there’s nothing she won’t stoop to — including impersonating an investigative journalist from the New York Times — in a bid to get to the truth.

Of course, a story like this can’t help but be wildly funny. I tittered a lot through this novel. The abhorrent behaviour of Mrs March, her undisguised but unconscious snobbery, made me laugh. Take this simple example:

As the party progressed, the living room fattening with each new arrival, Mrs March tasked Martha with attending to the guest bathroom regularly, to fold the towels and freshen the toilet seat and floor with a light ammonia solution. The sharp antiseptic vapors merged with the sticky, sappy scent of pine, creating a smell so distinct that guests would, on future visits to hospitals or upon passing a storekeeper emptying a bucket of mop water onto the street, instantly recall that last party at the Marches.

Or this little snide remark about the noise of clacking high heels in the apartment directly above:

She didn’t know who owned the apartment right above theirs, but every time she saw a woman in heels in the lobby she would consider approaching her, maybe befriending her so that one day she could mention, in a casual, offhand manner, the surprising benefits of house slippers.

As you can tell from these quotes, the story is written in the third person, but very much from Mrs March’s point of view. We really have no idea what goes on in the head of her husband, nor her young son, Jonathan, with whom she has a rather detached relationship.

A black comedy of manners

This is a book about manners, a black comedy, if you will, with a dark twist, and it’s written with a big nod to Patricia Highsmith and perhaps even Michael Dibden.

I really loved following Mrs March’s increasingly outrageous antics, but I also worried for her sanity — and wanted to let her know that maybe she should just take a chill pill! It’s unsettling and disturbing, hugely suspenseful and a terrific page-turner. Most of all, it is simply great fun.

A movie adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss, has been slated. I suspect it will be a hoot!

For other takes on this novel, please see:

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, France, Maclehose Press, Pierre Lemaitre, Publisher, Setting

‘Blood Wedding’ by Pierre Lemaitre

Fiction – paperback; MacLehose Press; 312 pages; 2016. Translated from the French by Frank Wynne.

I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk lately with way too many books on the go and none of them really hitting the spot, as it were. And then I picked up Pierre Lemaitre’s Blood Wedding and — cliché alert — I COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN.

Set in Paris, France, the story focuses on Sophie, a nanny, who wakes up one morning to discover the little boy in her care is dead, a shoelace from her own boot around his neck. Having no memory of the night before but knowing she will be accused of the murder, she withdraws all her savings and decides to flee the city. Not everything goes to plan, and before she’s even had time to book a train ticket she commits another horrendous crime that serves to make her situation even worse.

Running from one calamity to the next and frightened that she will be arrested, Sophie makes a series of blunders that threaten to expose her. It becomes clear that she is deeply troubled. She’s mentally unhinged, often blacks out and, as a consequence, has giant holes in her memory. Her problems seem to stem from the death of her husband in a terrible road traffic accident several years earlier. Since then, everything has spiralled out of control.

Now, convinced that the only way to hide from the authorities is to assume a new identity, she sets into motion a plan to find a rich man to marry and take care of her. But the person she marries isn’t who she thinks he is and this fast-paced octane-fuelled novel switches into an even higher gear.

Lemaitre then does something superbly clever — and unexpected. He tells the story from a different point of view so that we see Sophie in a whole new light.

Someone watching over you

Frantz is a voyeur who has been keeping an eye on Sophie for quite a long time. He stalks her and knows her every movement and records it in a diary, but Sophie has no idea she is being watched in this way. It makes for an insidiously creepy read, but it’s also highly intriguing. Who is Frantz? Why is he so obsessed with Sophie? What does he know about her husband’s death? And will he sabotage Sophie’s plan to assume a new identity?

Both storylines come together neatly at the end, but there’s nothing predictable about the plot. I have a lifetime of reading experience in this genre but even I couldn’t guess what would happen — or how. It felt like such a rare treat to be so absorbed by a suspense novel in this way.  (Indeed, it turns out Lemaitre is an award-winning writer — his first novel to be translated into English, Alex, won the CWA International Dagger for best translated crime in 2013 and in the same year he also won France’s top literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, for The Great Swindle.)

In this book, nothing is as it seems. Just when you think you have a handle on what is going on, the author throws in a new piece of information that turns everything on its head. It is pointless to second guess. And that’s the beauty of this compelling suspense novel.

Blood Wedding really does quicken the pulse. Its intricate plot twists and turns its way towards a satisfying could-never-see-it-coming conclusion. I loved being held in its thrall for two days and missed it when it was over. It got me out of a reading slump, and has me inching to read more by this talented French author.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2018, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Nicole Trope, Publisher, Setting

‘The Secrets in Silence’ by Nicole Trope

Fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 214 pages; 2017.

Nicole Trope’s domestic suspense The Secrets in Silence employs a dual narrative to tell the story of two troubled people — a teenage girl and a middle-aged woman — and how their lives become entwined in a strange and unusual way.

Tara, a young teenager, has given birth in a public toilet but cannot recall any details of the event and has returned home without the baby  — and without her voice. Because she can no longer speak she is unable to help her parents (who did not know about the pregnancy), nor the police, locate the newborn, and her story has now hit the news headlines. There is the very real threat that if the baby is discovered dead that Tara will be charged with murder.

Meanwhile, Minnie, a morbidly obese single woman in her late 40s, finds the baby and brings it home with her. She dreams up an elaborate plan to pass it off, first as her imaginary cousin’s offspring, then as her own daughter from an unplanned pregnancy.  For the most part she gets away with it.

But, eventually, these two storylines converge (though not in a predictable way) and Minnie’s crime, and Tara’s part in it, is set to be exposed.

Fast, compelling read

The Secrets in Silence might be a zippy little read (I ploughed through it in the course of a day), one that sounds a bit sensationalist and over-the-top, but it’s got a lot going on in it.

The story is underpinned by social commentary — about dysfunctional families, dysfunctional neighbourhoods, dysfunctional sexual relationships — and how  silence, whether by choice or enforcement, acts as a coping mechanism for many people. Trope writes about the “voiceless” — in this case a teenage girl and a lonely older woman — and shows what happens to them when they get caught up in events much larger than themselves.

But what makes the story really work is the suspense element. Trope expertly ratchets up the tension, keeping the reader on tenterhooks as both Tara and Minnie dance around each other, unaware of their shared connection. When will the penny drop, you wonder.

Trope is also excellent at creating a strong cast of believable characters. Aside from the two central figures in the story, there’s a collection of well-drawn subsidiary characters, which include Tara’s successful father, her trying-too-hard stepmother, her institutionalised mother and her stuttering boyfriend, who succumbs to peer pressure and bullying far too easily. Then there’s Minnie’s neighbours — the kind, understanding June and the horrible collection of inconsiderate criminally minded young men, who are noisy and abusive, that live in the house on the corner.

All in all, The Secrets in Silence is a terrifically fun and provocative read. It’s intelligent and intensely paced, perfect for a lazy day by the pool — or the fireside.

This is my 13th book for #AWW2018 and my 8th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it on 23 March 2017, for the princely sum of 99p, purely on the strength of Trope’s earlier novel, Hush, Little Bird, which I read in 2016 and really enjoyed. 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Greece, London, Mulholland Books, Publisher, Sabine Durrant, Setting

‘Lie With Me’ by Sabine Durrant

Lie with me

Fiction – Kindle edition; Mulholland Books; 305 pages; 2016.

Sabine Durrant’s suspense novel Lie With Me fits perfectly into the “holidays from hell” genre. It also fits rather nicely into the “amoral narrator” category. But, more importantly, it’s completely and utterly at home in the “books you don’t want to put down” bracket.

Serial liar

Narrated by 42-year-old Paul Morris, it charts the struggling author’s dastardly plan to develop a sexual relationship with a woman he doesn’t particularly like so that he can move in with her and keep a roof over his head.

Paul uses every trick in the book to inveigle his way into Alice’s life, a hugely successful human rights lawyer, who is widowed with two teenage children, and before he knows it he’s invited himself on the family’s annual holiday to Greece.

But this isn’t the romantic interlude he expects, because Alice has invited along a married couple and their children, which adds a level of complication to the trip for Paul went to university with the husband and the pair have a shared (read troubled) history.

To make matters worse, Paul has told a bundle of lies to cover up the fact he currently has no income, has been dropped by his agent and is living back home with his mother. Keeping up this pretence is a monumental exercise that requires Paul to always be on the ball, lest he say something that will reveal the truth about his situation.

Tension-filled page turner

The book ratchets up the tension by showing how Paul’s deviancy is very close to being exposed. The will-he-be-found-out, won’t-he-be-found out suspense is what makes this novel a real page turner.

And it helps that even though Paul is narcissistic and manipulative and downright dastardly (with a terrible eye for the ladies, it has to be said), you want to cheer him on, to get one over on the horrible middle-class people he’s hooked up with. His bare-faced lies are so shameless as to be admirable, and some of his activities are laugh-out-loud funny because they’re just so brazen. As a reader you simply keep waiting for him to get caught out.

Of course, Lie With Me has a twist at the end (which, frankly, I didn’t see coming), one that turns everything on its head. This is a super-enjoyable farce that gripped me from the first page to the last — it’s the perfect summer read if you’re looking for something that will keep you turning the pages without taxing your brain too much. Just put your mind in neutral and go with the flow.

This is my 6th book for #20booksofsummer. According to my Amazon order history, I purchased it on 21 January 2017 for £1.95. I’m not sure what prompted me to buy it, but I’m really glad I did. This is the most fun I’ve had reading a suspense novel in quite some time.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Lives of Women’ by Christine Dwyer Hickey

The-lives-of-women

Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 278 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Christine Dwyer Hickey may possibly be Ireland’s most under-rated writer. She’s written seven novels — I’ve read the oh-so brilliant but heart-breaking Tatty and the inventive award-winning The Cold Eye of Heaven — as well as a short story collection and a (newly published) play.

The Lives of Women, her latest novel, is right up there with my favourite reads of the year so far. It’s the kind of book that hooks you right from the start and then keeps you on tenterhooks throughout. I started reading it on a Sunday morning and then had to make a difficult decision about whether to put it aside to finish my chores and planned errands or to stay indoors and finish it. I chose the latter.

A return from exile

When the book opens we meet Elaine Nicols, a woman in her late 40s, who has returned to her childhood home in suburban Ireland after a long exile in New York. Her mother has recently died — she missed the funeral, deliberately as it turns out — and she needs to make sure her invalid and uncommunicative father and his ageing Alsatian are okay before returning to the States.

One day, while airing the attic, she notices that the house backing on to her father’s has been sold. As its contents begin to pile up in the garden, she keeps “thinking about something that happened more than 30 years ago” which continues to haunt her.

The novel then swings backwards and forwards in time, building up a portrait of a dysfunctional family living in a hotbed of other dysfunctional families on a small suburban housing estate where everyone knows everyone else’s business.

There are constant hints that something tragic happened, which resulted in 16-year-old Elaine being “disowned” by her parents and sent away to live on the other side of the Atlantic with next to no family contact. But what we don’t know is what caused such an extreme parental reaction, and it is this extraordinary build up of suspense that makes The Lives of Women such a page-turner.

Mothers and daughters

While it’s essentially a suspense novel, the tension is not created at the expense of detail or humanity. The author peoples it with believable,  intriguing — if somewhat flawed and troubled  — characters.

She is particularly good at depicting the contradictory relationships between teenage girls — the peer pressure, the gossiping, the bitchiness and the overwhelming desire to fit in and be liked. But it is the fraught relationship between Helen and her over-protective mother that she really excels:

She thinks to herself — tomorrow. I will make an effort tomorrow. I will try to be nice to her. The effort I make will be strong enough to break the grip in my stomach and then I’ll be able to breathe again.
In the early hours of the morning she is filled with hope for tomorrow’s effort. And then the next day, the second — the very second — she sets eyes on her mother queasily coming out of the bathroom and padding down the stairs in her big frilly dressing gown, the laundry basket held high in her arms, empty bottles whispering inside it — she hates, hates, hates her, all over again.

There’s no doubt that Dwyer Hickey is a brilliant stylist, effortlessly switching between third person past and first person present, and there’s something extraordinarily pitch-perfect about the mood she evokes — you feel Elaine’s loneliness, her confusion, her terrible need for redemption — and yet it’s not an overwhelmingly dark book: it’s punctuated by moments of joy and humour and there’s a lyricism in the writing that carries the novel into the light.

But don’t take my word for it: Susan Osborne, who blogs at a Life in Books, also loved it — you can read her review here. And you can read more about the author by visiting her official website. Personally, I’d love to see this one on the Man Booker Prize long list, which is announced tomorrow… but I won’t hold my breath.

UPDATE: Well, surprise, surprise, this book didn’t get long listed for the Booker — but here’s hoping it does get listed for Irish Book of the Year later this year. In the meantime, the complete 2015 Man Booker long list is here.