Book Review: THE ESCAPE ROOM, a psychological thriller set in the cutthroat world of finance

Goldin, Megan - The Escape Room 3The Escape Room
Megan Goldin

At the Wall Street firm Stanhope & Sons, employees are expected to be completely committed, working 100 hour weeks, missing family events, and forgoing any semblance of a life outside their job. Their orientation indoctrinates them into the ideology of the firm: make money. In return, they are handsomely rewarded with astronomical salaries and bonuses.

Still, the downturn has touched the firm, Vincent’s team in particular, and they’ve lost several key accounts in the past six months. He, Jules, Sam, and Sylvie fear that they may be soon terminated. So, when they receive an invitation to participate in a mandatory “escape room” activity on a Friday evening, they all arrive at the strange skyscraper that is still under construction even though none want to be there, just in case their performance might save their jobs.

Reluctantly, they filed into the elevator to rendezvous at the specified floor. Not too far into the journey, the elevator car stalled, the lights were cut, the heat blasted, and emergency services silenced.

Only Sam has ever participated in an escape room before–he and his buddies went to a warehouse for a bachelor party and after an introduction were put in a simulated Learjet with the goal to find a bomb. Although they found clues in the cabin, the “bomb” exploded, and an hour later, they were released by the staff. Right away, he realized something was different. No escape room staff had provided an introduction or given them an objective. And where in an elevator could clues be hidden?

Though the quartet had worked together for years, spending more time together than they did with their loved ones, they still harbored secrets. Yet, to escape the confines of their captivity, they needed to work together, something that the cutthroat Stanhope & Sons didn’t prepare them to do. They had all expected to emerge, perhaps with a career advantage, but as time passed, they wondered if they would leave the escape room at all as long-simmering resentments and buried secrets boiled to the surface.

The Escape Room has two points of view that alternate throughout the book: a third-person narrator relating the events in the elevator and an employee from the firm recounting the history of the team inside. While I don’t know how accurate Goldin’s depiction of a Wall Street firm’s culture is, if they are anything like Stanhope & Sons, they are even worse than I imagined: cynical, sexist, and opportunistic. How the different women handle the male-dominated working environment is an interesting aspect of the book.

While the suspense in the elevator begins immediately, the action taking place from the other point of view is a slow burn, at times too slow for my taste, and I didn’t always like moving from the psychological chess game and sometimes literal danger in the elevator to the more mundane activities represented by the employee narrator. However, at the end of the book, the activity picks ups in a surprising way, and though it strains credulity, it is also quite satisfying.

If you are looking for a psychological thriller that introduces some new tropes, The Escape Room is a fair bet. Set against the already high-stakes world of high finance and confining a group of less than moral people in a small space, the book takes a new approach. Definitely an entertaining read.

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

Book Review: THE RUMOR, a harmless piece of gossip turned deadly

Kara, Lesley - The Rumor (1)The Rumor
Lesley Kara

In 1969, while playing with a group of neighborhood children, ten-year-old Sally McGowen killed five-year-old Robbie Harris. She was convicted of manslaughter and when released disappeared while Harris’s family stayed in the public spotlight, the subject of scrutiny whenever a birthday or the anniversary of his death approached. His mother and sister never understood why Sally wasn’t convicted of murder and how she was able to leave prison and live a normal life.

Decades later, single mother Joanna Critchley, having relocated to the small seaside town where she grew up, struggles with finances and raising her child, Alfie, who was bullied in his previous school and who hasn’t yet made friends. Additionally, she has a complicated relationship with Alfie’s father, Matthew, an investigative journalist.

One afternoon while waiting for Alfie outside his elementary school, Joanna hears a rumor from another mother that Sally McGowen is living in their town under an assumed identity. That night at book club, she lets the rumor slip, and a few days later, another woman from book club tells her she thinks she knows who Sally McGowen is.

Determined to make friends with the other mothers, Joanna sees this information as currency, and she tells them her secret which gains her entry into the exclusive babysitting circle and access to playdates and birthday parties for Alfie. At the same time, someone has used the information to begin a campaign of terror which soon turns on Joanna and Alfie. Joanna, with help from Matthew, must find out the true identity of Sally to protect herself and her son before it’s too late.

The Rumor is a fast, engaging read with an interesting mystery that also questions if child perpetrators can be rehabilitated and how living under an assumed identity affects a person’s mental health. At times, though, I didn’t like the style. Joanna often made pronouncements, almost like she was breaking the “fourth wall” in which she would say “Oh, no” or “Oh, well.” Additionally, I felt very unmoored when it came to the setting. I could never quite figure out where the book was taking place, wondering where a small seaside town might be close enough to a large city to make sense in the context of the narrative. Ultimately, enough clues pointed to Boston as the big city. In the acknowledgements, Kara thanks someone for helping her adapt the manuscript for an American audience. I wondered if it originally was set in the UK, which might explain why the setting seemed awkward.

This is an ideal “airplane read” for mystery lovers: low commitment, entertaining, and undemanding.

Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: WATCHING YOU, a satisfyingly creepy mystery

Jewell, Lisa - Watching YouWatching You
Lisa Jewell

On March 24, police are called to Melville Heights, an exclusive neighborhood in Bristol, England where they find a body in a pool of blood. . . .

In this tony neighborhood, privacy was only an illusion. Joey Mullen and her new husband, Alfie, moved in with her brother Jack, and his wife, Rebecca. Joey always thought Jack would marry an outgoing, lively woman, but Rebecca, often quiet, is more likely to stay in her home office than interact with the rest of the family.

When Joey notices her neighbor, Tom Fitzwilliam, the handsome head of the local school, she develops an unhealthy fondness for him. Although she believes no one knows about her feelings, Tom’s teenage son, Freddie, an aspiring spy, watches the neighborhood with high powered binoculars from his bedroom window.

Mr. Fitzwilliam, well-known around the community, is regarded as a hero because he turned around the ailing school, but Jenna Tripp is not convinced he’s the beneficent spirit he appears. Jenna’s friend, Bess Ridley, has a crush on Mr. Fitzwilliam, and in Jenna’s eyes, Mr. Fitzwilliam has responded inappropriately. It doesn’t help that her mother, Frankie, suffering from mental health issues, believes that Mr. Fitzwilliam is the head of a group of people who is organizing gang bullying against her. Her surveillance of Fitzwilliam isn’t subtle; she sits in a lawn chair across from his house.

Moreover, Mr. Fitzwilliam’s wife, Nicola, appears to be subservient to Tom, and Freddie sometimes hears sounds from his parents’ room at night that sound like fighting.

Watching You traces the story of the murder as it developed from January. Traditional chapters are interspersed with police interview transcripts, and it is only after several characters are interviewed that the identity of the body is evident, though who the murderer is remains unclear. Despite the number of people watching, no single commands the entire mosaic.

Although at times events strain credulity and the book can give unclear messages about the appropriateness of adult behavior towards teenagers, Watching You has the qualities I want in a mystery/thriller: it is fast-paced and entertaining. Added to these are the quirky characters in the mix and the unusual situation of the civilians, not the police, having most of the answers. With Watching You certainly satisfying, I will likely pick up another Lisa Jewell novel.

Book Review: THE WIFE BETWEEN US

The Wife Between Us (4)The Wife Between Us
Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Nellie excitedly prepares for her wedding to Richard who in her mind couldn’t be more perfect. Successful and handsome, they met when he gave up his first class seat on a plane to a soldier who happened to be sitting next to her. He showers her with attention and gifts, and she dreams of a future with him and a house full of children.

Vanessa, Richard’s ex-wife, though, seethes over Richard’s upcoming marriage. She starts following her replacement, watching her apartment, and even goes back to her natural hair color so she will look more like her.

It is best to read The Wife between Us without knowing anything about it–ignore the promotional copy if at all possible because it will definitely decrease your enjoyment of the book.

Otherwise, the novel is a gripping psychological thriller. Although I figured out one twist (likely because the book cover spoiled it), the book had other surprises in store.

Slightly more complex than a traditional book in the genre, The Wife between Us has complex characters that can’t completely be described as “good” or “bad.” They carry horrendous childhoods, forcing the reader to consider how much one’s past can excuse present behavior. Class, power, and age also contribute to the sense of agency each exhibits.

The first section is deliberately obtuse, and it would be nice to have more characterization given to secondary characters. I also thought that some of the personalities changed to suit the narrative instead of organically. One of the more interesting things about this book is that it is co-authored. The text is seamless, and it’s really impossible to tell that it’s not produced by a single voice.

Though flawed, The Wife between Us is very readable and compelling. It certainly will appeal to fans of psychological thrillers–and will probably keep them up all night wanting to know what happens next.

Book Review: THE SILENT PATIENT, if you like psychological thrillers, read this book!

Michaelides, Alex - The Silent PatientThe Silent Patient
Alex Michaelides

Painter Alicia Berenson was found in her living room, wrists cut, rifle on the floor, with her husband, Max, tied to a chair, dead from a rifle shot. From the moment she was taken into custody, she refused to speak, and she was sent to the psychiatric facility the Grove, which, incidentally, was in danger of closing because the innovative methods advocated by medical director Dr. Lazarus Diomedes were far from cost effective.

The only thing resembling a statement Alicia made was a self-portrait entitled Alcestis. In the Greek myth Alcestis, Admetus is condemned to death unless he can find a volunteer to take his place. His parents refuse, but his wife Alcestis is willing. She departs for Hades, but Heracles intervenes and returns her to life. While Admetus is overjoyed, Alcestis responds with silence, leaving Admetus to ask why his wife doesn’t speak.

Forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber had been interested in Alicia’s case since her story was first covered in the papers. Having an abusive childhood himself, he believed that he alone could reach and heal Alicia, so when a position opened at the Grove six years after Max’s murder, he applied, even though it might not be the most advantageous move for his career.

Since therapy with a silent patient presents challenges, Theo ignores professional standards and seeks out Alicia’s friends and families for insight into her thoughts and behavior before Max’s murder. Perhaps something could explain her drastic action–or even exonerate her. At the same time, excerpts from Alicia’s journal reveal that Theo’s sources may have their own secrets to keep.

The Silent Patient is a gripping and solid thriller that I read in one gulp. I don’t want to say anything else about it except that if you like this genre, you will want to read it as soon as possible!