“This is my apology,” the book began, and my heart twisted in my chest.
I started this book one morning and was two-thirds of the way through by lunch. All through lunch, my head was caught up in the book and I could hardly drag my thoughts away. I brought it up as a subject again and again over the meal, much to the exasperation of most of my companions. After lunch, I went straight back for the book and planted myself on the couch with it for another hour until I was done.
Then I sat contemplating what a masterpiece I had just read.
This sounds utterly cliche, I know, but I can’t remember the last time that a book made me this invested, or made me want to sing its praises as much as this one.
From the start, the writing pulled me in. I despised the point of view character by page 2, yet I couldn’t help feeling for him. I use words like “despise” because I can’t find another word for it. The truth is, I found him compelling despite the alarm bells that were going off before I’d even turned the first page. I wanted to despise him. On an intellectual level, I do. But the writing drew me into his head, into his mindset; at points, I found myself riding along with his delusions, being drawn into the idea that maybe Karen is better off with him, after all.
This is a story of seven people: Gisele (formerly Karen), her long-lost sister Amanda, her abductor-turned-father Tristan, her husband Luke, her daughter Nicola, and her friends Robin and Marc. Amazingly, the book isn’t written in such a way as to give the reader a sense that any one or two of these seven is more central or instrumental than the others. This is a book of seven tragedies, all wrapped into series of events. Each of the seven has a compelling story, but none of them are happy stories. Each of these seven is well-developed and written so extremely well that they each feel like a distinct person with unique desires, wishes, personalities and motivations.
The book was initially described to me as a mystery. I would describe it more as suspense or a thriller, but there certainly are four mysteries that propel the plot forward: Tristan’s blackmailer, Nicola’s paternity, the identity of the artist who painted Gisele, and the culprit of a murder that occurs about half way through the book. Some character is always searching for answers, even if that answer is known to us readers: Amanda trying to work out if Gisele is truly her presumed-dead sister, Luke trying to work out why Amanda is in town… Every character is in possession of different information, and so frequently wrong assumptions are made and acted upon. Of particular note is the way that Ryder even plays with the assumptions a reader might make. For instance, letting one assume initially that Tristan must be Nicola’s father, only later revealing that this is not the case. This means that initially, when Luke begins to suspect the circumstances around his family, I went from believing I knew the answers to realizing that I was just as clueless as Luke. It is a brilliant style.
The story flows utterly naturally and fluidly, and the characters are compelling and sympathetic, no matter how deplorable I found their actions. Apart from a brief monologue by Tristan on page 2 about his family history, I never felt like the author was merely trying to convey information to me. Masterfully, Ryder uses not only words and details, but also unspoken assumptions of her readers to create a story that never stops being suspenseful and compelling from cover to cover. Information is revealed gradually and naturally, in vivid language that encapsulates mastery of the craft of storytelling.
I can only say that I recommend this book as highly as I have ever recommended a book. If I were to rate it as I used to rate books I reviewed, this would break the scale. (Say, eleven out of ten?)
Now I just have two things that I want to discuss, but I can’t do it without spoiling some of the book in a big way.
For the most part, my only negative criticism is the very last page. I so enjoyed the ambiguity of it all; the way that the last few chapters had a variety of characters pointing fingers at each other for Gisele’s murder. It was, in my opinion, perfect at one page from the end. Each of the men was a potential suspect. The last two chapters hinged upon the fact that no one knows for sure who the culprit is. Various characters have theories and readers would have been left to draw their own conclusions. But the last page—just one page—shatters this by showing us what actually happened. This was, in my opinion, entirely unnecessary. In fact, it had the effect that it provided closure for me in a way that let my mind leave the book very cleanly. It’s nice to have the opportunity for such closure. It feels right. But I have no doubt that the book would have stayed with me a lot longer had that one last page been absent.
Now, this isn’t a critique, but I want to talk about gender roles in this book.
I think that it is important to note that this is not any woman’s story. This is the story of four men: Tristan, Marc, Robin and Luke, and their desire for Gisele. The women, Gisele, Amanda and Nicola, are characterized by an utter lack of agency in their parts in this story. Gisele is abducted as a teenager and her life thereafter is spent under a literal spyglass; Nicola is a child who is born into a convoluted family situation and has no power to do anything; and even Amanda, though she is the most proactive of the women, also only comes into the fray because she is manipulated by the men to suit their own agendas.
One could make the argument that Luke also has limited agency, as he is largely being manipulated by Tristan, Marc and even Gisele, but he was not forced or tricked into marrying Gisele. That was his own mistake. He also ends up taking a more proactive role in the story once he begins investigating Nicola’s paternity and Gisele’s paintings. He laments being under Tristan’s thumb, but he was always free to leave in a way that his wife and presumed-daughter never could. The thing that pulled him into this situation was his desire for Gisele. It is the same for Tristan and Marc, and even Robin, though the latter is portrayed as being rather more “sane” than the others: he never wanted more from Gisele than what she could offer. Luke, Tristan and Marc we see drive their lives into horrible corners because they so desperately want more from Gisele than she can give, even as she at times blames herself for what she has done to them. Psychologically, the mindset is quite realistic. Gisele has always lived among men who wanted her, couldn’t control their desire, and frequently ended up taking horrifying actions as a result. These men blame Gisele for how she makes them feel. Of course Gisele finds herself at fault for trying to use them to give herself a slightly better life in her cage. Yet on a more objective level, Gisele is only a victim…little more than an object, even.
It is a mindset that fits the situation. Yet I might have found it difficult to stomach, if not for one detail.
That detail is Gisele’s paintings. Gisele, it is revealed, painted her own nudes. It is a small thing amidst all of the issues that surround these characters. But it shows that Gisele had, in some small way, agency. It’s more symbolic than anything. Because the paintings are so sexual, it is generally assumed that these must have been painted by her lover. For those to be self-portraits shows that there was a part of Gisele that was more than the victim that had been made of her. Of course, the paintings were created with the assistance of Robin, so it wasn’t entirely out of the men’s hands…but it was a thing that we are given to understand was Gisele’s choice, and Gisele’s art.
So there is an uncomfortable element to the gender roles. Maybe I find myself wishing Amanda had been more active, tearing through the expectations of those who had orchestrated her involvement.
But this is a story about one woman and the earth-shattering desire she inspired in four men. It’s not meant to be a portrayal of men and women in general…just these seven twisted, messed-up lives. And it was a brilliant read.