The Fall Guy

9780393292329_198   James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy is a psychological thriller with the same eerie flavor as Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.  With astute observations of those around him,  Lasdun’s unreliable narrator is as literate as he is lethal and downright creepy.

When Matthew, an out of work chef, accepts an invitation from his wealthy cousin Charlie, a recently dismissed hedge fund manager, to spend the summer at his luxurious mountainside retreat, their cohabitation seems relatively peaceful at first.  Matthew occupies the guest house and cooks the meals, while Charlie and his wife, Chloe, while away the days swimming, reading, and practicing yoga. Their conversations are friendly yet reserved, with an underlying vein of Matthew’s unrequited love for his cousin’s wife and his jealousy of Charlie’s success. Charlie is overbearing and entitled (he has a million and a half dollars in cash in his home safe), while he vacillates between being the gracious savior of Matthew’s moneyless circumstances and acting as the overlord expecting undue fealty for his benevolence.

As the story slowly unveils secrets in the characters’ past, Lasdun’s descriptions of Matthew’s gourmet meals are mouth-watering, with exquisite attention to detail.  This detail continues with Chloe’s project of photographing county mailboxes and creating gardens around the house, lulling the reader into thinking nothing bad will happen after all.  Matthew’s private rants about his bad luck growing up without a father who disappeared after making bad investments, his private schooling abruptly interrupted by being caught dealing drugs, and his unsuccessful forays into the restaurant business, all seem innocuous – the quiet despair of a depressed person, not the festering revenge of a psychopath.

When Matthew decides to secretly follow Chloe on one of her photographing expeditions, and discovers she is having a secret affair with another man, the narrative quickly turns into a Hitchcockian drama. To reveal too much would spoil the plot; Lasdun uses clever twists and red herrings to draw the reader into the maze of deception, revealing more past history as possible motives for the characters’ actions.  The denouement is unexpected – I backtracked to reread pages, thinking I must have missed something because the sudden change in the action took me by surprise – not at all what I had been led to expect.  The ending is a little rattling, but the murderer (did I tell you there’s a murder?) is caught.

Lasdun includes a few phrases worth remembering. One easy to apply to the next person you meet who is pretentiously cheerful –

…”a hypocrite in whom dissembling graciousness had become habit…”

I read the book from the library, but I couldn’t help thinking how well the book would play on Audible with Matthew’s British accent.  The beginning is a little slow, but once the action starts, it would be hard to fall asleep listening.

 

 

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Have You Checked the Children

9781250045379_p0_v3_s192x300    Using a phrase from a macabre mystery movie, Ann Leary lulls the reader into a suspenseful family drama in The Children.  The tale of the blended Whitman family follows a seemingly routine path, as Leary introduces the quirks of each character, but like all her stories, Leary always has hidden and surprising twists.

Charlotte Maynard, the reclusive narrator, writes a blog about life as a harried housewife with problem children; she does so well she has acquired sponsors who pay her to post everyday.  Charlotte is a fraud.  She is not married, has no children, and successfully  plays on the anonymity and possibilities of the internet and vulnerable users.

Although Charlotte’s mendaciousness sets the tone for all the other characters, Leary carefully keeps their facades in tact until almost the end of the book. All have secrets: Laurel, the too perfect girlfriend; Sally, the talented but disturbed sister; Spin, the likable step-brother and heir to the estate; Everett, boyfriend and dog whisperer.

The story revolves around familiar themes – old money, New England family, and greed.  After Whit Whitman dies, his second wife and her daughters live on in the lakefront estate; however, his sons own the estate, with a provision in the family trust that allows their step-mother to stay. When Spin, the youngest brings his fiancé home, cracks start to appear in the family relationships, with resentments and old wounds threatening to bring down the house with humor and intrigue.

If you enjoyed Leary’s The Good House (soon to be a film with Meryl Streep), you will like The Children – an easy and enjoyable read with some well-appreciated subliminal thoughts on real estate lust and computer hacking.

Related Review:   The Good House

 

 

 

 

Burnt Mountain

Do you have fond memories of summer camp?  Or did you write  letters like Allan Sherman’s “Hello, Mudder; hello, Fadder…” from Camp Granada?  Anne Rivers Siddons bases her latest Southern drama – Burnt Mountain – on camp experiences that change lives – and not as expected.

Siddons’ novels are usually full of elaborate descriptions of Southern living, with detailed attention to the Low Country landscape and the regional characterizations.  Burnt Mountain is no exception, offering a view of gracious living, with flawed personalities.  Thayer Wentworth, the daughter of a social climbing mother and old-moneyed father, finds refuge in a summer camp after her father suddenly dies in a car accident.  After a few summers, she becomes a counselor and meets the handsome young prince from the boys’ camp, Nick Abrams, and they fall in love.  After Thayer finds herself pregnant at seventeen, her mother tricks her into an abortion – with dire consequences.  Her wealthy grandmother subsidizes Thayer’s college education, and Thayer falls in love with Aengus, the handsome Irish professor of Celtic folklore.  They marry and move into Grandma’s house when she dies.

All seems relatively stable, except for Thayer’s haunting nightmares and her husband’s penchant for Celtic magic.   Looking for an audience for his storytelling, Aengus finds a receptive group at the local boys’ camp, Camp Forever, and also volunteers for the city’s upcoming Olympic hospitality committee.  As Aengus becomes immersed in his work and distances himself from Thayer, Nick Abrams reenters the narrative – now an architect, focused on building housing for the Olympic participants.

Siddons inserts her signature flair for family secrets that undo the best of them – with the theme of living your own life.  The resolution has strange otherworldly inferences with Aengus’s abrupt and disconnected descent into a forbidden world.   With the weird life-sucking witchcraft at Camp Forever, you may be reminded of Bette Midler in her Halloween role in Hocus Pocus.

Siddons novels are usually easy reads, following an expected formula.  Her strength lies in her captivating descriptions with doses of romance in an easy storytelling style that eventually ends in a happily ever after.  This ending, however, was not only contrived – it was unbelievable.