I haven’t given much thought to seasonal reading, but this summer I’ve read more thrillers than I have in years’ past. Maybe because they are more about plot and less about character and easier to digest? Who knows, but here are two summer releases I tore through. They’re on opposite sides of the drama scale- one boils over right from the beginning while the other is more of a slow burn.
Our House by Louise Candlish
Published by Berkley
Publication date: August 7, 2018
Our House is a variant on a frequent nightmare of mine—I know something is true, but no one believes me. Read into that whatever you want about my psyche, but it means that the opening of Our House made my head and stomach hurt. Fiona returns home unexpectedly early from a weekend away. She shares the house with her estranged husband in an unusual co-parenting arrangement meaning they swap time while the children never have to move. What she finds is strangers in her home with proof that they purchased it from her and Bram, her ‘ex’. As chapter 1 closes it is dawning on Fiona that this is not a mistake and Bram has literally sold her out. If that’s not enough, author Louise Candlish opens chapter 2 with a suicide note—from Bram. And from there the pace never slows down.
There are a few moments early on, when it seems as if Fiona must be in on this scam, but Candlish doesn’t waste much time in this misdirection. Instead, she portrays Bram as the quintessential man-with-a-lot-to-hide. I mean a lot. Enough that it constitutes spoilers so I’ll leave it there but things get very messy for everyone. Which is where the novel lost me. Bram is beyond deeply flawed, not in a sociopathic way, but in a bumbling, foolish way that is almost impossible to reconcile with the breadth and depth of secrets he’s keeping. It’s so over-the-top that it felt like Candlish was trying far too hard to build suspense when she didn’t need to. Bottom line? I skimmed this novel and was not loving it, until the last two sentences. At which point I screamed “NO!” out loud. Not kidding. There is simply no way you will see this ending coming. It is psychologically brutal and brilliant. It moved this novel from one I almost didn’t finish to a 3 star rating.
The Drama Teacher by Koren Zailckas
Published by Crown Publishing Group (NY)
Publication date: August 7, 2018
In direct opposition to the shock factor that opens and colors Our House is the slow and subtle premise in Koren Zailckas’s The Drama Teacher. Gracie has been a grifter since childhood. Her father was charming and fun while her mother was strict and practical so when he suggests they run away for a bit she goes with him. She thinks it’s a holiday, but they never return to Ireland. Eventually, she leaves him when he indicates she’s slowing down his cons, but she never forgets what she learned. When the novel opens she’s befriending a bored housewife in the Catskills. A woman she proceeds to scam in her disguise as an architect. When things go wrong and the woman dies, Grace heads to NYC with a new identity for herself and her two children. There she meets a nice guy who’s a teacher at a prestigious private school. She starts falling in love, even as she’s building a whole new persona.
Unlike Bram in Our House it’s not hard to accept Gracie as a sociopath. She has layers upon layers of lies swirling around her but because she is so well constructed by Zailckas, it’s believable. She writes The Drama Teacher in the first person making it easy to conjure up the cheeky Gracie who is wicked, but isn’t lying to the reader about it. And, as she starts caring about someone else, you can’t help but hope it will work out. But does it? Or is the web so big that is collapses under its own weight?
The Drama Teacher will not be for everyone. It is a character study wrapped in a thriller surrounded by a game of cat and mouse. At some points Zailckas stretches plausibility a bit thin, but I still wanted to see where this novel would go. It reminded me of Sunburn, but without as much tension. Zailckas conveys the weight of so many lies in one person’s mind, but keeps Gracie from being one note with hints that her past is not as she remembers it. It’s good reading, but not as strong as her debut, Mother Mother, which I loved.