First things first, I have to thank Mogsy at Bibliosanctum for showcasing this title a short while ago, when I had decided to diversify my reading materials by branching out in other directions: since crime and thriller are among the other genres I enjoy besides fantasy and SF, this book looked just perfect, and it turned out to be a quick, immersive read that I found quite difficult to put down.
Marin Machado lives what you could call a charmed life: owner of a chain of hair salons catering to the affluent and the famous, married to equally successful and loving Derek, mother to four-year old Sebastian – she can indeed call herself lucky. That is, until one day, shortly before Christmas, a momentary distraction in a crowded market results in the abduction of Sebastian, last seen by security cameras as he leaves the area hand in hand with a Santa-costumed man. Roughly one and a half years after the kidnapping, Sebastian has not been found and even the FBI put the case on the back burner given the absence of further useful evidence.
Despite wallowing in understandable despair, and some suicidal thoughts, Marin is not ready to call it quits and she enlists a private investigator to continue the search, to leave no stone unturned: what the P.I. finds, however, is not a clue to Sebastian’s whereabouts, but rather the incontrovertible proof that Derek has been having an affair with a younger woman for the past six months. The revelation shocks Marin out of her well of misery and turns her on the path of vengeance, driving her to seek “professional help” to remove the threat of the other woman from her already crumbling marriage: this path, however, will prove to have unforeseeable consequences and will lead Marin to agonizing choices and shocking discoveries.
Where this novel starts as the portrayal of every parent’s worst nightmare, the abduction of a child, it soon veers off in a different direction, and I have to admit that I was quite surprised, not so much by the change of narrative focus but rather by the intensity of Marin’s commitment to her new objective: when we see her after the dramatic prologue, she is a ghost of her former self, consumed by guilt for that momentary distraction and by anguished thoughts about what might have happened to her son. She attends regular meetings with a support group of similarly affected parents, and while their therapeutic value might be dubious, they at least give her a chance to talk with people who understand where she is, emotionally and psychologically, filling the place left by the growing distance with her husband. The discovery of the affair seems to give her a new lease on life, so to speak, the pain for the unbearable loss of her child turning into simmering anger that stops at nothing, not even the thought of commissioning a murder – probably because she finally found a target for that anger: she does not know who took Sebastian away from her, but she knows now who is trying to deprive her of what’s left of her family, and in this she is not powerless anymore.
There is not a single sympathetic character in this novel and when we get to know them (through present actions and flashbacks to the past) we see how deeply flawed they are: Marin suffers from a selfish streak, evident in her dealings with longtime friend and former lover Sal, who she ditched quickly when a better prospect came along, but still remains her go-to person in times of need. And like many other betrayed women before her, she prefers to direct her hatred only toward the rival, the housebreaker, conveniently forgetting that in extra-marital affairs the people involved are always two, sharing the blame in equal measure. For his part, Derek looks like the perfect jerk, one who was already guilty of a fling during Marin’s pregnancy, which makes her resolution to win him back even more baffling: and little does it matter that he seems already tired of the other woman and is acting accordingly – the picture that comes out of his behavior is not a very pleasant one.
The real surprise, though, comes from the author’s choice of giving voice to McKenzie, the mistress, so that her character is substantially fleshed out and we are able to see the motivations compelling her – not that they are uplifting ones, of course. What the young woman is, and has been for a good part of her twenty-four years, is a professional girlfriend: she latches on to older, preferably married men, waiting for the inevitable breakout time to earn what she sees as well-deserved severance pay. McKenzie’s shallowness, her fixation with social media and the number of likes she gathers by sharing the trivial minutiae of her everyday life, all contribute to make her the focus of readers’ animosity: there seems to be no redeeming quality to her, no perception of right and wrong, something that hints at some early, irreparable damage…
If the description of these characters and the situation they find themselves in sounds right out of a soap opera, think again: this is a thriller through and through and as the story progresses we realize that there is more under the surface than we – or the characters – bargained for. Apart from the angle of loss and despair following a tragedy, like the kidnapping of a child, there is the examination of the psychological implications of such an event, their aftermath on relationships, and the consequences of betrayal and vengeance. And there is a massive surprise at the end, because all these elements – past and present – are connected and this connection comes out as a big surprise toward the end of the story.
I have to admit that the way the various plot lines were brought to their end felt a little too convenient, and saddled with more ‘telling’ than ‘showing’ for my own tastes, but still the road up to that point was a very easy, very intriguing one and I enjoyed every single minute I spent there, which will certainly prompt me to look for more of Jennifer Hillier’s works.