The Safe Place by Anna Downes
The Safe Place by Anna Downes seems like the perfect book for socially distancing amid a pandemic. It takes place at a beautiful French chateau, a mammoth home by the sea with a pool, stable, and outdoor kitchen. The main characters sit by the pool and drink wine, and if they're trapped, at least they're trapped in paradise. Of course, nothing is as simple as it seems, and underneath its ideal facade, this beautiful French chateau harbors not just a rank, rotting odor, but sinister secrets. And it's up to Emily to uncover them.
Emily starts as a down-on-her-luck actress, feeling desperate. She loses her job and faces eviction, all in the space of twenty-four hours; what's more, she has a falling out with her adoptive parents, who are tired of financially bailing her out time and again.
But things aren't as dire as they appear. Scott, Emily's ex-employer, has had his eye on her, though it doesn't become clear what he sees in Emily and why he's going to so much trouble to lure her in, until late in the book.
The novel uses third-person limited POV, with most of the chapters focusing on Emily, and every so often, there's a chapter that focuses on Scott. Through this narration, we learn that Emily has always felt like an outsider, whether it's in the town where she grew up, or even in her own family, as she is sure she's a disappointment to the couple who adopted her and rescued her from an abusive situation.
Scott also feels desperate. His wife and daughter are isolating themselves at their French chateau, and for some very complex reasons, he can't bring himself to visit often. Scott knows that Nina, his wife, needs help and companionship, so he drafts Emily to work there, being an "assistant" - she gets lots of money, tons of perks, and an amazing roof over her head. She is required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and there's no phone service. But at first, she doesn't mind, even though Scott and Nina's daughter is super creepy and the only other person on the estate, Yves, barely talks and is always throwing Emily evil glares. Plus, Nina seems a bit unstable as well, crying in the middle of night during thunder storms and refusing to let Emily inside the main house.
But, then Scott finally comes to visit, the attraction between Scott and Emily grows, and even more wine is consumed. Soon, Emily is unwittingly uncovering the dark truths that Scott and Nina have tried so hard to hide, and at the same time, Emily must come to terms with her own unresolved issues and difficult past.
The writing in this novel is expertly done, and the plotting is commendable. The promise of dark secrets and twists and turns does not disappoint, and I was kept guessing until the end. There's lots of vivid imagery and believable characterization, where I found myself feeling for flawed characters who make bad choices.
That said, this wasn't a book that I couldn't put down. The suspense was there, but like a relaxed day at the beach, I felt I could linger through this novel, without a sense of urgency where I must find the answers and the resolution. Perhaps it had to do with the rank smell at the chateau that no scented candles could cover up. It was a great piece of description, but at the same time, I was constantly reminded, that like the chateau, the novel itself was not the perfect escape.
I recommend The Safe Place if you're looking to be entertained (but not engrossed) by a stellar plot and layered writing.
I Know Who You Are by Alice Feeney
I really enjoyed Feeney's first novel, Sometimes I Lie, and I admit to being a fan of the British psychological thriller with a flawed heroine and a twist ending (which her first novel totally was), so I climbed on board for her second novel.
The story is about Aimee, a rising screen actress whose marriage is falling apart. At the beginning of the story, Aimee and her husband Ben have a fight, and then Ben promptly disappears, leaving his phone and his car keys on the kitchen counter. Aimee does what anyone would do in that situation and calls the police. Problem is, the more the police dig, the more evidence they find that Aimee murdered Ben. Plus, Aimee’s situation grows increasingly complicated, as we learn that she has a stalker, AND that she was kidnapped and abused as a child, that she doesn’t remember things well because of the trauma she suffered, and Aimee isn’t even her real name, since the couple who kidnapped her forced her to take the name of their dead child.
By the end of the novel, I was skimming just to get through and find out the end. I wanted to like it, but there were too many problems with this book for me to say that I did. First, there are inconsistencies and plot points that are never explained. Second, some of the abuse described in this novel is beyond disturbing and the effects it would have had on Aimee are never dealt with, so the descriptions are nothing more than gratuitous and unnerving. Finally, the “twist” at the end is so unbelievable and ridiculous (and also disturbing), it made me wish I’d never read the novel at all.
All that is not to say that Alice Feeney is not a good writer. She knows how to set a scene and build suspense, and I did at least enjoy most of the present-day Aimee scenes. (The scenes where child Aimee was kidnapped and abused were not enjoyable however.) Feeney also has some profound passages about the nature of life, loss, and identity, that are nearly poetic in their eloquence. I just wish she’d written them into an entirely different novel.
Unless you don’t mind scenes of abuse, incest, gratuitous violence and highly implausible twist endings, I’d skip I Know What You Did.
The Heir Affair (The Royal We Book 2) by Heather Cock and Jessica Morgan
This second novel follows The Royal We, in which all-American tomboy Bex studies at Oxford, and falls in love with Prince Nicholas, who is second in line to the throne. Their romance is a roller coaster ride, made more complicated when Bex’s twin sister Lacey, and Nick’s younger brother Freddie, interfere. But (spoiler alert) Bex and Nick get married at the end, though their wedding was not the perfect fairytale ending for which they’d hoped.
The Heir Affair picks up where The Royal We left off, with Bex and Nick trying to find their footing as a married couple, dealing with an angry population, hungry gossip columnists, and tons of family drama. Still, Bex and Nick find a way to strengthen their bonds with both family and friends who appeared in previous novel, and the ups and downs of their relationship seems plausible and is also plenty entertaining.
I loved the first novel and I equally loved the second. With both books, I went in thinking, “This is so long! Why didn’t their editors insist they take stuff out? Are all the little anecdotes really necessary to form the plot?”
Yet by the end, I realized both times that they were. I didn’t think any part of either book was boring or unnecessary. Instead, I could savor in a nuanced story that takes its time laying the foundation for a complex plot, driven by flawed yet compelling characters, who have seemingly real motivations for making the choices they make.
The Heir Affair both continues the story of Nick and Bex’s romance, but also draws upon the history of Queen Elanor’s marriage, and upon the tragic past of Eleanor’s sister, Georgina. Nick’s younger brother Freddie and their father, Richard, are also spotlighted. I do not claim to be any sort of expert on the real royal family, but I browse the headlines enough to see some parallels between truth and fiction, and thought the authors did a great job of bringing both relevance and a sense of history to the book. All this builds to an emotionally satisfying conclusion. Also, I listened to this book on audio, and the narration by Christine Lakin was excellent.
I highly recommend The Heir Affair!
My Book Reviews
I love novels! My favorite genres are high-end women's fiction, suspense, and psychological thrillers, but occasionally I'll also pick up some chick lit or YA. I mostly read books on my kindle, and I also listen to audio books every morning when I go for my run.