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.