Relative newlyweds Bea and Dan are superficially happy in a small apartment in London, she a psychotherapist and he an estate agent. Bea, who came from a wealthy family, accepts no financial support from them. Dan, however, child of a black mother and absent white father and who grew up in poverty, hates his job and wants to return to his passion: painting. Dan, often described as the most handsome man in the room, surprised some of his friends when he paired up with the “frumpy” Bea.
Dan’s patience with his meaningless job comes to an end, and Bea suggests a three-month holiday through Europe. Bea has kept Dan away from her family, but she wants to stop in France and see her brother Alex, an addict who has been in and out of rehab but who is now clean and managing a hotel.
When they arrive at Hotel Paligny, however, they learn “clean” is relative and the decrepit hotel is less of an ongoing concern than a major stalled project. Even worse, for Bea, her parents, Griff and Liv, arrive for a visit. With them comes an air of entitlement and a level of access Dan has never before experienced. He doesn’t understand Bea’s ardency against them—but he also doesn’t know the childhood secrets Bea has locked away.
What starts as a family drama spins into a mystery when a character suddenly dies, and then the narrative shifts into horror for the dénouement. As a result, I never fully got my bearings when reading this novel, and the writing style, which I can best describe as staccato, kept me at a distance instead of drawing me in. That might very well be the point, as Bea had many mechanisms for putting layers between her and others, in which case it makes for clever writing but not necessarily enjoyable reading.
On the one hand, this novel explores how parents’ sins corrupt their children. Sadie Jones herself, talking to NPR, gave another perspective: “It’s a book about chaos and the surprise terrible things that happen that we can’t foresee …” In any case, this is book that is rich in symbolism (snakes!) and ideas and so intellectually stimulating, but not a book I would pick up for its entertainment value.