Book Review: ADÈLE, a visceral book about sex addiction undermined by unlikable protagonist

Slimani, Leila - Adele CoverAdèle
Leila Slimani

A sex addict always hoping but never able to fill the void inside her, Adèle jeopardizes her marriage with Richard, her job, her finances, and her relationship with her son for quick and often debasing rendezvous with strangers. Adèle is also vain, judgemental, manipulative, dramatic, and often cruel.

Although the description intimates the book might have elements of a psychological thriller, in truth, the slim volume is a psychological study of a woman who cannot step back from the edge of self-destruction. Because Adèle was so unlikable, it undercut the impact of her addiction which was difficult to parse from her personality. Her ambivalent feelings toward motherhood were also interesting, but those, too, became overshadowed by her unlikeability. When she puts herself in danger and when she engages in riskier behavior, perhaps hoping to get found out, it is difficult to empathize with her.

When a character is so flawed, it seems readers always want to know why. In Adèle’s case, Slimani seems to blame a combination of her mother’s flippant cruelty as a child combined with an encounter with The Unbearable Lightness of Being at an impressionable age, but these factors to me don’t seem to justify the extremes of her behavior. While I am satisfied that at times, some behavior is inexplicable, I am less content that Slimani finds these two factors sufficient justification in the context of the book’s logic for Adèle’s behavior.

Towards the end of the book, the novel introduces Richard’s perspective demonstrating his culpability in their unhealthy dance of mutual dependence. It was a strange and to me jarring shift, and the book ended on an ambiguous and unsatisfying note.

Adèle confronts an addiction not often discussed and illuminates the perilous spiral in which addicts circle. Adèle’s experiences are vivid and visceral. Unfortunately, as a character, Adèle doesn’t spark much sympathy.

Thank you to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for providing an advanced reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Perfect Liar, a psychological thriller with problematic protagonists

Green, Thomas Christopher - The Perfect LiarThe Perfect Liar
by Thomas Christopher Greene

Both Susannah and Max, the dual narrators of The Perfect Liar, overcame challenging childhoods. Susannah began having panic attacks in college then became sexually involved with her therapist. Max, who never knew his father, spent his impoverished childhood with a neglectful mother only to join a group of “crusty punks” and spend three years homeless migrating with the seasons. But they’ve put these struggles long behind them. Their fulfilling and intimate marriage only blossoms as Max achieves professional success as an artist and secures a prestigious appointment at a university in Burlington, Vermont.

However, when Susannah finds a note on their front door saying I KNOW WHO YOU ARE, the illusions she and Max have so carefully constructed crack under the weight of secrets and lies. After one of Max’s colleagues dies in a tragic fall when they were out trail running together, attention on their family only increases, and the ominous notes continue to arrive.

The Perfect Liar is an easy-to-read, fast-paced thriller with some surprising turns. It also plays with the idea that personalities and life stories are creations as much as a painting on a canvas. But there were aspects of the novel that diminished my enjoyment. In the first half of the book, characters unnecessarily insulted or mis-characterized the mentally ill, bald people, and vegans.

Throughout the book, certain details rang false. After a successful Ted talk, Max received a number of “luxurious” job offers from universities across the country. Usually, the academic job market is much more competitive than represented here, and I’ve never heard of high paying positions in an art department for a visiting professor. In the hospital, a nurse wrote on a clipboard, but it’s rare to find a medical facility that doesn’t have electronic records. And a description of search dogs made me think the author isn’t aware of how disciplined and well-trained these working dogs are.

I also had issues with the writing style. The transitions between changing character views were non-existent, though I hope this is an artifact of the reading copy I read and in the finished version, there will be spaces or a bullet/ornament on the page. Often, the author used “I am,” “I will,” and so on when contractions would have provided a more natural rhythm. At times, too, the prose exhibited a lack of polish.

The absolute worst part of the The Perfect Liar, though, was Susannah. She is a female character only a man could write, with a focus on her appearance and cooking skills. For her sex only seems to be about manipulating men or giving men a necessary release rather than any personal pleasure. When the family moved to Vermont, she became a stay-at-home housewife completely abandoning her career. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that decision, but it’s a difficult decision to make. Susannah demonstrates none of the conflict I would expect in a woman in her position. And this doesn’t even touch upon her seduction of her therapist. Max himself is a sexist prick, but somehow in a book like this, I’m not surprised.

Finally, while the notes were an interesting plot device and provided a sense of mystery, it is unclear what the sender ever hoped to gain from such a passive act.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: AN ANONYMOUS GIRL, a psychological experiment gone awry

Hendricks and Pekkanen - An Anonymous Girl 5 editedAn Anonymous Girl
by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Make-up artist Jessica Ferris is burdened with secrets. Instead of working in theater, as she told her family, she’s making her living doing in-home makeovers with BeautyBuzz. She can’t bear to disappoint her parents. But she’s had practice keeping secrets for much longer. . . .

When she learns of a psychological study about ethics that pays participants $500 dollars, Jess doesn’t think twice before attending a research session that was originally scheduled for one of her make-up clients. Ben Quick, research assistant to Dr. Shields, who is running the study, escorts Jess into an empty classroom where she’s asked to respond to a series of questions about lying. To some extent, Jess feels liberated by the exercise and eagerly attends a second session the next day.

Something about Jess comes through in her responses, and Dr. Shields invites her to join a more extensive, less conventional offshoot of the study that challenges ethics in real-world settings. Jess just learned that her father was laid off from his job selling insurance and decided to agree; she also began to see Dr. Shields as a sympathetic confidant.

Over time, Dr. Shields pushes Jess to perform questionable behaviors in service of her study, and Jess, though at time uncomfortable with what Dr. Shields wants her to do, acquiesces in the face of Dr. Shields’ authority–and the large payments she is getting to participate.

But as Dr. Shields learns more about Jess and puts her in increasingly compromising and dangerous position, Jess begins to wonder how much she can trust the doctor. As she tries to uncover the layers, Dr. Shields uses manipulation and deflection to further ensnare Jess until Jess’s very life is at stake.

An Anonymous Girl is told through the shifting perspectives of Jessica and Dr. Shields. Dr. Shields’ sections are written in second person, present tense, passive voice. While I understand Hendricks and Pekkanen likely made the stylistic choice to emphasize Dr. Shield’s distancing from the study, these sections were unpleasant to read. Writers guides advise to write in active voice for a very good reason.

The authors show that they are familiar with some psychological phenomenon: they mention the Hawthorne Effect and the Prisoner’s Dilemma which provide some grounding for the book and lend authority to Dr. Shields. At the same time, there is a decided lack of awareness regarding informed consent in psychological research studies or about research design, in which the hypotheses and research methods are set well in advance of data collection and don’t change. Dr. Shields’ unconventional methods and lack of adherence to commonly accepted precepts might provide some characterization but they also strain credulity.

It’s also hard to believe that Jess would capitulate to Dr. Shields’ demands. Dr. Shield is presented as charismatic and cunning, but still! Jess, though, is a scrappy character if slightly inconsistent, and she has a profession I’ve not seen in a novel before. At times, though, her inner voice was astute and polished while her dialogue with other characters was choppy and unsophisticated, and the contrast was jarring.

Beyond the standard psychological thriller plotting, An Anonymous Girl also incorporates themes of guilt, revenge, making assumptions, and obedience (though they missed the opportunity to reference the Milgram obedience studies). The added interest these themes provides somewhat offsets the stylistic shortcomings and questionable characterizations, making the book a good choice for a plane trip.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

BOOK REVIEW: Into the Night, murders in Melbourne

Bailey, Sarah - Into the NightInto the Night
by Sarah Bailey

Recently transferred to Melbourne from small town Smithson, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock has a difficult relationship with her partner, Nick Fleet, and is unable to judge what her commanding officer, Chief Isaac, thinks of her. Nursing wounds from a break-up and separation from her son, Gemma’s personal life is a mess. Yet, Melbourne suits her, and she finds comfort in the crowds and the anonymity.

When a homeless man is found, stabbed dead in a tunnel, Gemma is first to arrive on the scene. Yet, Isaac assigned another detective to lead the investigation. But shortly after, Gemma and Nick are able to test their mettle when rising star Sterling Wade is stabbed and killed while filming a key action scene for a Hollywood zombie movie. Yet, everyone they encounter, from Wade’s director Riley Cartwright, to his brother, Paul Wade, seems to have a motive and lack an alibi.

Into the Night falls into the category of literary mystery and has a lot to recommend itself. The writing is solid and the characters multidimensional. In fact, when one very likeable character commits an unforgivable betrayal, it hurts. Gemma herself is complicated, and she has a challenging relationship to the identity of motherhood not often depicted. I enjoyed the backdrop of the zombie movie production and the Melbourne setting. Additionally, the novel shows how a detective squad often has to balance multiple investigations, sometimes privileging one over others due to time or notoriety.

Bailey raises themes relating to celebrity and who gets to claim grief when one dies, the media, and their symbiotic but sometimes antagonistic relationship to law enforcement, and the invisibility and anonymity of the city which can be comforting but also dangerous, all of which were interesting to consider.

My main criticism of the book is that the Bailey chose to write the story in present tense; it didn’t quite work for me, instead feeling a little jarring, unless that was the intent. Plus, at times I found Gemma irritating, rather overdramatic and self-pitying, though I suppose we can all be accused of that at times.

Not until I read the Author Biography at the end of the book did I realize Into the Night was the second novel in the Gemma Woodstock series. The first was The Dark Lake published last year (2017). I plan to circle back and read that at some point because despite the few issues I had with the book, I did enjoy it overall. It will definitely appeal to readers who enjoy literary mysteries by authors such as Tana French.

Thank you to Netgalley and Grand Central Publishing for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

BOOK REVIEW: The Liar’s Wife, two kidnappings and a murder

Hayes, Samantha - The Liar's Wife (2)The Liar’s Wife
Samantha Hayes

For the past ten years, since a tragic fire, Ella Sinclair has isolated herself. Fearful of questions that might reveal her role in the tragedy, Ella refuses to become close to anyone, finding solace in her work, home, sleep routine.

One night, she is biking home and a van hits her when it unsafely enters a roundabout. Days later, she wakes from a coma with a broken arm and leg. Her nurse assures her that her loving husband has been by her side. But Ella has never been married. Who could this stranger be? When she sees his face, she recoils in horror and wants to escape but “Jacob” was there the night of the fire and has a video tape implicating Ella in the events leading up to it.

She feels she has no choice but to let him take her home with him and pose as his wife. As he did a decade ago, Jacob beats Ella, forbids her from leaving the house, and watches her with video tapes installed throughout the dwelling. Having one leg in a cast and one arm broken makes escape even more elusive. Still, she has just moved from one prison, the one of isolation, to another, physical cell. Inquisitive and trying-to-be-helpful neighbors create a minefield Ella must navigate.

As the narrative barrels to the inevitable confrontation between Ella and Jacob, Samantha Hayes inserts a number of characters from Ella’s past that could be Jacob. Usually, I don’t figure out mysteries very quickly, but I guessed Jacob’s identity early on. Because Hayes has to keep all the options for these characters open, occasionally she has to do narrative acrobatics. Additionally, Liam, a co-worker of Ella’s, has a handful of point of view chapters, and he’s presented as a counterpoint to Jacob. Unfortunately, I found his character rather problematic as he constantly transgressed borders, even if it was out of concern for Ella.

Despite being held prisoner, having a difficult time with mobility, and being given an unexpected responsibility, Ella is determined to escape. Her perseverance in the face of pain reminded me of Uma Thurman’s Kill Bill character. Ella’s achievements are in private; she fears revealing her goals to Jacob in case he retaliates or limits her further. Perhaps the driving force around the narrative relates not to what will happen but how and if Ella can ever start developing relationships with others.

The Liar’s Wife was an enjoyable if not lasting thriller, and Ella’s broken leg and consequent immobility added a unusual dimension. The pace of the book, though, was a little off for me; it didn’t ever really grab me. Some of the peripheral characters, such as Ella’s college roommate, were to my mind stereotypical. And there was a plot strand that was unexpectedly resolved when in this case, it would have been better to leave as an open mystery.

Thanks to Netgalley and Bookouture for providing an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.