Aside from romance, I also find myself reaching for the occasional crime novel or fast-paced thriller as my comfort reads. It sounds strange if I put it that way, but what I consider to be ‘comfort reads’ are books that can quickly transport or distract me, and thrillers can be very absorbing.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been very lucky with the genre lately. Here are my reviews of Stephanie Wrobel’s Darling Rose Gold (2020) and Jessica Moor’s The Keeper (2020), two of my most anticipated thrillers this year which turned out to be disappointments. Thankfully, I just finished Jane Harper’s Force of Nature (2017) this week, which turned out to be very satisfying.
DARLING ROSE GOLD by Stephanie Wrobel
Published by Berkley on March 17, 2020
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆
This review contains minor spoilers, which have been hinted at in the synopsis.
Upon reflection, I’m docking a star from my original rating of 3 stars, because 3 stars implies that I still liked it, which I didn’t. In fact, I usually finish thrillers in one sitting, but it took me nearly a week to finish this because of how bored I was with it.
First off, I have to admit that I was so carried away by the hype around this book that I didn’t read the synopsis properly. The only thing I remember about Darling Rose Gold is that it’s about Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP) (now factitious disorder imposed on another [FDIA]), a mental health condition wherein the caregiver fabricates illnesses for the person under their care and puts them through unnecessary medical treatment. Now that I think of it, the term Munchausen doesn’t even appear in its synopsis; I’d probably extrapolated it from the comparison to Flynn’s Sharp Objects (2006). From that comparison, I’d expected this book to be a slow revelation about MSBP and an exploration of the complex relationship dynamics behind it.
In reality, Darling Rose Gold is a revenge story. The book begins with the release of Patty Watts from prison. Patty has been in jail for five years, ever since Rose Gold testified against everything she had put her through in the name of a vague “chromosomal defect”. However, on the day of her release, Rose Gold herself offers to pick Patty up, much to everyone’s surprise. Patty thinks this is her chance to start over with her daughter, but—and I quote from the synopsis—”Unfortunately for Patty, Rose Gold is no longer her weak little darling… And she’s waited such a long time for her mother to come home.”
From here, the narrative alternates between Patty and Rose Gold and the past and present, showing Rose Gold’s difficulty in adjusting to life after Patty is sent to prison and how they interact after Patty is released. I found the present narrative predictable, especially after I’ve caught on the revenge plot; I spent the rest of the book waiting for Patty to catch up. The mother-daughter dynamic was also painfully obvious—because we see both points of view, I could anticipate what the other would say or think in a given interaction.
The sections about Rose Gold’s adjustment were more interesting. Due to her mother’s abuse and her isolation, Rose Gold’s appearance has deteriorated and her social life is nonexistent. Lacking attractiveness and social skills but desperate for human connection, Rose Gold gets people to care about her the only way she knows how—by manipulating them into feeling pity for her. In portraying Rose Gold this way, Wrobel turns the trope of the angelic, suffering victim on its head and makes us wonder if she really is her mother’s daughter, after all.
In the end, though, I couldn’t understand the rationale behind Rose Gold’s revenge. She’d already sent Patty to prison, so what’s the point of taking revenge again? We’re also told that Patty is a survivor of violent physical abuse, but instead of using this as an entry point to understanding MSBP, Rose Gold uses this information against Patty to punish her. The whole thing seemed pointless to me.
Overall, I found Darling Rose Gold to be a predictable story and a shallow depiction of Munchausen syndrome by proxy. I wouldn’t dissuade people from reading this, especially if you like a page-turner about an extremely unlikeable mother-daughter pair, but if, like me, you expected a more nuanced psychological exploration of MSBP, or a dark and creepy thriller like Sharp Objects, then you’ll be sorely disappointed.
Read from April 16-21, 2020
THE KEEPER by Jessica Moor
Published by Penguin Books on March 10, 2020
My Rating: ★★★☆☆
I was greatly looking forward to The Keeper, as it was pitched as “an addictive literary thriller about a crime as shocking as it is commonplace” (i.e., domestic violence). Some of my favorite books can be loosely classified literary thrillers (Du Maurier’s Rebecca ; Tartt’s The Secret History ; Moshfegh’s Eileen ). Plus, while killings due to domestic abuse are quite commonplace, I’ve never known them to be the subject of crime fiction. This makes The Keeper doubly intriguing to me.
However, few chapters into the book, it became clear to me that this is neither literary fiction nor a thriller. This is probably best described a character-driven murder mystery, similar to Laura Lippman’s After I’m Gone (2014). The book opens with the investigation of the apparent suicide of Katie Straw, with the narrative moving back and forth between past and present. The sections titled “Then” give us a window into Katie’s life when she was alive, and the ones on “Now” follow DS Whitworth and DC Brookes as they interrogate possible suspects, namely Katie’s boyfriend and the women in the shelter that Katie worked with. In the present, we also get the backstories of the five or six women who last interacted with Katie when she was alive.
I liked what this book attempted much more than its execution, so I’ll start with what it tried to do. I think by the slow-going, half-hearted investigation and the use of two white men as police officers, Moor demonstrates how the law never takes the cases of domestic violence seriously in the first place. DS Whitworth and DC Brookes also have some galling notions about the women in the shelter. For example, when a woman went back to her husband:
Why, Whitworth wondered with an ancient sort of weariness, can these bloody women not look after themselves?
And, when this woman was found dead, DC Brookes commented:
“We don’t know what she did. For all we know, she spent every day dragging her husband through the dirt while she lived off his money. You saw that house. You saw all the things he gave her. And what did she do in return?”
It was infuriating how they tried to justify the man’s actions, even when the woman was already dead. A number of other scenes also make this point: the justice system is still inherently biased towards defending the men’s actions, and minimizing and dismissing the women’s experiences of abuse at their hands, suggesting that she “deserved it” or that she “made him do it”.
However, aside from the point it was trying to make, I didn’t like anything else about the novel. The women in the shelter were given backstories but not personalities—even halfway through the book, I was still confusing one character for another. I also felt I had to care about the women because the book is telling me to, and because they’re all victims. The women’s persistent sense of victimhood did contribute to the bleakness of the novel, but I don’t think it does justice to survivors of domestic abuse.
Overall, this was a very promising debut novel that fell short in execution, likely because of its noble intentions. The pacing was too slow, the plot was bogged down by too much backstory, and the characters were so similar to each other that they could have been interchangeable. The moralizing was also heavy-handed. However, if you’re looking for a noir-ish crime novel with feminist undertones and don’t mind the slow pacing, backstory, and large cast of characters, then you might be curious about what The Keeper has to offer.
Read from May 4-8, 2020
FORCE OF NATURE by Jane Harper
Published by Flatiron Books on September 26, 2017
My Rating: ★★★★☆
FINALLY, a good mystery! I’ve previously read and reviewed the first book in Harper’s Aaron Falk series, The Dry (2016), and I found it compulsively readable, if a little clumsy with its use of flashbacks. The second book in the series, Force of Nature, is even better than the first.
Here, Harper once again demonstrates that she is a master at creating a sense of place. If, in The Dry, Harper brought us to a humid and claustrophobic farming community in Kiewarra, in Force of Nature, Harper brings us to the rugged, ominous, and… well, wet (sorry, I can’t help it) Giralang Ranges, a vast and mostly uncharted land where it can be very easy to get lost—and hide bodies.
“It’s the panic that gets to you. Everything starts to look the same after a few days, makes it hard to trust what you’re seeing.”
Force of Nature opens with a corporate retreat set at Giralang Ranges. As part of their team-building activity, five women are grouped to make their way up the range together. However, on the last day of the retreat, only four return. As the police begin a search for the missing woman, Alice, pieces of evidence surface that hint that foul play is involved in her disappearance. Since Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper are relying on Alice as an informant into her company’s unethical business practices, and they suspect their sniffing around might have something to do with it, they travel to the ranges to help with the investigation.
This is another novel that alternates between the past and present in order to tell the story, and I thought it was masterfully done. Snippets from the past reveal the dynamics between the women and how they begin turn on each other as they lose their way and their supplies run out, which makes us suspect—could one of them have done it? Did all of them do it? At the same time, the present investigation makes us wonder if maybe the real culprit is someone from BaileyTennants, the company Alice is working for—did they send someone to kill her, to “keep her quiet”? On top of all that, the ranges are haunted by the story of a serial killer who raped and murdered four young women there years before. This novel kept me guessing, and I stayed up all night to finish it.
My only complaint about this is that I found the ending a little anticlimactic. I mean, I didn’t guess the killer correctly (I rarely do, which is why I still enjoy this genre), but I still felt vaguely betrayed, since I didn’t go through all that nail-biting suspense just for the book to fizzle out like that in the end.
Overall, Force of Nature is a compulsively readable, atmospheric, and claustrophobic read, with a very interesting glimpse into the dynamics of a group of women who turn cruel in their desperation to survive. This is my second book by Harper and I have a feeling that she’s going to become one of my go-to crime authors. I’ll definitely be reading The Lost Man soon, and I look forward to her new novel this year, The Survivors.
Read from May 8-9, 2020 | Find me on Goodreads!