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Saturday, July 25, 2015

3 More "Gone Girl" Read-a-Likes? Reviews of "Luckiest Girl Alive" by Jessica Knoll, "The Girl on the Train" by Paula Hawkins, and "Pretty Baby" by Mary Kubica

I read this great article in The Globe and Mail about how publishers have been comparing books to Gone Girl in order to encourage sales: (And I didn’t like the article just because one of its authors, Nathalie Atkinson, was a former student.)

This phenomenon is so true: within the last two months, I have read three books which have been compared to Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster:  Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica; Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll; and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.  Here are my reviews of these three.  My conclusion is that Pretty Baby (to be released on July 28) is the best.

Review of Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
I read this book because Maclean’s described it as “smart, sexy, and sharp . . . with more than a bit of heart and hope to it.” I found, however, that it had little of these qualities.
2 Stars

TifAni FaNelli is a very status-conscious writer for a glossy women’s magazine. Not yet 30, she seems to have everything, including a privileged lifestyle with a rich, trophy husband-to-be. Beneath the surface, however, is a person damaged by events when she was a freshman in an elite private high school. A documentary being filmed brings what happened to her to the forefront.

The narrative alternates between past and present. Ani’s life in the present is interspersed with flashbacks to her past, and gradually the reader learns what made her the person she is.

And she is not a likeable person. She is so superficial, judging everyone based on appearance: are they wearing the appropriate designer clothes and do they have a sufficiently thin body? She is judgmental and hypocritical: she has clawed her way up the social ladder but she sneers at her mother’s attempts to do the same. As the truth of what happened to her is revealed, the reader is to have more sympathy for her and to realize that her personality is a façade she has “meticulously crafted” in order to survive. Perhaps I am as cold-hearted as Ani, but I just didn’t find myself empathizing as much as the author probably hoped readers would.

TifAni was gullible and shallow as a teenager, and she hasn’t matured. What happened to her was certainly traumatic, but she has learned little. She has had over a decade to reflect on what happened and why, yet she has realized nothing? In the end, she makes some decisions which are supposed to indicate a positive change, but I found myself unconvinced. For a character change to be convincing, the character must be capable of change. Ani’s attitude and behaviour are so entrenched that she seems incapable of change.

The author creates suspense by hiding what happened to TifAni. This works to a certain extent. The problem is that once the reader learns what happened – well before the end of the book – interest lags.

This is another of those books, like The Girl on the Train, which makes for a nice light read on summer vacation but does not stand up well when examined critically.

Review of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
3 Stars

Anyone looking for a light summer read for the beach or hammock might want to consider this psychological thriller. It is not great literature but provides sufficient interest to help one while away a few hours.

Rachel is a thirtysomething heavy drinker who commutes daily into the city. As she travels the train, she watches the houses in the neighbourhood where she lived with her ex-husband. She takes an especial interest in Megan and her husband Scott who seem to have the perfect relationship. One day, however, Rachel witnesses something unusual, and then she reads that Megan has disappeared. Rachel feels she has information which could be useful to the police, but they dismiss her as an unreliable witness because of her drinking and erratic behaviour. About the night of Megan’s disappearance, Rachel had an alcoholic blackout though she knows she was in the vicinity of Megan’s home. Rachel tries to recover her memory of that night and insinuates herself into the lives of those who might have some knowledge of Megan’s fate.

The mystery is narrated from the perspective of three women: Rachel (the witness), Megan (the victim), and Anna (the wife of Rachel’s ex-husband Tom and neighbour of Megan). These points of view provide useful information and interesting backstories which aid in character development, but they also create suspense by introducing a number of possible suspects.

Obviously, all is not as it initially seems. Rachel thinks Megan and Scott are the perfect couple. But are appearances deceiving? Anna and Tom seem happily married, though Rachel’s harassing phone calls do put a strain on their relationship. But is it only Rachel that makes trouble? What emerges are characters who are flawed and have secrets.

I admired the characterization of Rachel. She is not a protagonist who is easy to like. She is weak, self-pitying, and spiteful. While under the influence of alcohol, she behaves irrationally. She lies. Despite Rachel’s many lapses however, the reader still comes to sympathize with her situation. There are times when I found myself totally frustrated with her, but I nevertheless hoped all would work out for her.

Like much escapist literature, this novel is flawed. For example, motivation for behaviour is often unrealistic, so the psychology in this psychological thriller is suspect. But like summer cinematic blockbusters, it is entertaining. It does not stand up to careful scrutiny and literary analysis but is a fast read appropriate for a vacation.

Review of Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica
4 Stars

This is a great psychological thriller – one that will keep many people up late as they find themselves unable to stop reading.

Heidi Wood brings home Willow, a homeless teen, and Ruby, her infant daughter. Despite the objections of her husband Chris and her daughter Zoe, Heidi finds herself more and more drawn into the care of the two. We can guess from the beginning that things will not end well.

There are three narrators – Heidi, Chris, and Willow – who take turns giving their perspective. This narrative technique works well in that we learn what motivates each character. We also see how the behaviour of one person can be (mis)interpreted by another, the incident with the condom being a good example. But then it becomes clear that the reliability of all narrators can be questioned because of their being blind to what is going on, refusing to be truthful about motives, or keeping secrets.

There is a great deal of suspense. Much of the suspense is created by the mystery surrounding Willow because of her unwillingness to talk about her life. What is her story? Can she be trusted? Willow and Ruby may have been in danger on the streets, but does Heidi put her family in danger by bringing Willow home? And then there are the secrets that virtually all the characters have: Zoe barely talks to her parents, Heidi and Chris are not totally open with each other, and Willow is unwilling to tell her story to the family that has given shelter to her and Ruby.

Characters are well developed. All are flawed but the reader will sympathize with all of them because the author succeeded in humanizing them all. Even behaviour that might initially seem bizarre is made understandable because sufficient background has been provided. I especially liked the use of foil characters; Heidi and Chris serve as distinct contrasts to each other. Heidi is “driven by feelings and emotions” while Chris is left-brained and logical.

There are several twists as the plot unfolds. I guessed the truth about Willow and Ruby and what would happen to the Wood family because there are many clues to the truth, but that did not mean my interest waned.

Reviewers have compared this book to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, but I found Pretty Baby to be more psychologically plausible than both of these. I predict it will be the next thriller blockbuster.

Note: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.