Reviews

DEAD TO HER, by Sarah Pinborough

Once again, I find myself of two minds about a Sarah Pinborough novel: like the previous one I read, Behind Her Eyes, this book focuses on quite unlikable characters – and there is a lot of them here – while offering an intriguing story that is part mystery, part social study and part romance, with a dash of voodoo superstition thrown in for good measure. It’s this apparent lack of focus on a specific theme that mostly baffled me, making me wonder more than once whether the author was unsure about the kind of story she wanted to tell: in the end, of course, every apparently scattered piece of the puzzle falls into place and delivers an intriguing ending, but for me the journey was a difficult one, a fact that somehow soured my enjoyment of the overall story.

Marcie Maddox is a younger second wife: her husband Jason took her away from a life of hardship and launched her into the high society of Savannah, where Marcie did everything in her power to be accepted by the closed circle of the town’s elite. When Jason’s older partner, widower William Radford, comes back from a European vacation with a new wife who soon becomes the center of attention, Marcie’s world feels endangered: Keisha is young and attractive, and Marcie soon notices that Jason seems inclined to flirt with her, which raises all sorts of alarms for Marcie, who knows better than anyone else how easy it is to steal another woman’s husband…

This is just the premise of a story that becomes more and more complex as we get to know the main characters better, and moves slowly but surely toward the uncovering of the web of lies, deceit and secrets underlying what looks – on the surface – like a perfect, carefree world. As I said at the beginning there is not a single one of the main characters deserving of sympathy: Marcie hides a shady past which hangs over her like a cloud, and for this reason she tries very hard to fit in into Savannah’s society, even though she’s younger than the other wives in her circle and secretly despises them for their “old matron” attitude and the skin-deep goodness exercised in charity work and soup kitchens for the poor. Keisha comes from an underprivileged family and wants to escape both their poverty and their psychological hold on her: her marriage to William is the ticket for the new life she wants, but she can hardly wait for her aging husband’s demise to enjoy newfound freedom and prosperity to the fullest.

The men fare little better, what with Jason not being a model of honesty and integrity – and as the story moves forward we discover more unsavory truths about him – and William being prone to sudden mood swings that soon reveal an overbearing attitude and a cruel streak targeting Keisha just as much as it did with his previous wife, whose presence seems to hang still in the house, very much Rebecca-like.  The secondary characters, mainly the wives, spend most of their time by shopping, being pampered in beauty parlors and indulging in gossip, portraying a kind of lifestyle that feels so empty and useless that it’s easy to wonder whether it’s a worthy exchange for all the material comforts they enjoy.

Where the characters did little – if anything – toward my enjoyment of the story, I very much appreciated Pinborough’s description of the sultry Savannah background, plagued by an oppressive heat that seems to weigh down the overall feeling of uselessness and despondency in which the characters look mired. And of course the slow unfolding of the buried secrets and the sequence of quite unexpected twists and turns peppering the final part of the novel helped me better appreciate a story with which I struggled a little, particularly in its middle, although – when all is said and done – I have to admit I expected something more, or something different. Or both.

Still, I have not given up with Sarah Pinborough’s works, because her narrative style is one I find quite compelling, so my hope is that this was just a “hiccup” down the road and that the next book will prove nearer to my tastes.

My Rating:

Reviews

BEHIND HER EYES: Netflix miniseries

When I saw the announcement for this miniseries inspired by the novel written by Sarah Pinborough I was very curious about it: I read the book in 2019 and, unlike previous Pinborough works I encountered, I was somewhat mystified by it, or rather by the double twist in its ending. With the help of hindsight I can now understand that the main factor in my reaction was the unexpected turn of the story from psychological to supernatural thriller which at the time had seemed too abrupt and… well, over the top.

Now “armed” with full knowledge of the plot, I was able not only to enjoy the Netflix miniseries, but to look back at the written story with different eyes and to better appreciate it with hindsight: if this experience taught me anything it would be that I must expect the unexpected – and more – from Sarah Pinborough’s works I still have to read, because read them I certainly will.

Back to Behind Her Eyes: on the surface it’s the story of a convoluted triangle between Louise, a single mother; David, a psychiatrist and Louise’s employer, and Adele, David’s wife. Louise meets David in a bar and at the end of the evening the two share a kiss; the following day, Louise discovers that the handsome stranger she just met is her employer and she vows to avoid any further entanglement – that is, until she accidentally meets Adele, his wife, and strikes a friendship with the woman, who seems very lonely and tormented.  Torn between her growing attraction toward David and the deepening friendship with Adele, Louise becomes entangled in the troubles of their difficult marriage, one where it’s hard to understand whether Adele is the victim of an abusive husband or the subtle manipulator in a toxic relationship. Louise’s situation is further complicated by the night terrors she suffers from and to which Adele offers a solution in the form of lucid dreaming, the learned ability to control one’s dreams instead of being controlled by them – an ability that will later manifest an unexpected side effect…

While I usually find that books portray stories much better than their screen versions, there are exceptions, and Behind Her Eyes is one of them: in this specific case, where the book had to keep the cards close to its proverbial chest to prevent readers from seeing too soon where it was headed, the visual clues of the miniseries were more subtle and allowed the events to build up in a more organic way, so that the final revelation was of course a huge surprise but it did not feel as extravagant as was the case for the book – although I have to admit that foreknowledge might have played a part here.  It would be interesting to hear the reactions of people who did not read the book, how they dealt with the lineup of cues and how the final revelation affected them, but from my point of view the screen version made the ending more believable, even taking into account the sheer weirdness of it.

Book and screen version are however similar in the portrayal of the main characters: all three of them are depicted in shades of gray, and all of them exhibit some unpleasant trait, although I must admit that screen-Louise comes across as far more sympathetic than book-Louise, since she is far less self-centered and feels more real in her attachment to her child, one of the details that did not convince me completely in the book.  For once, however, I don’t feel it necessary to truly compare book and screen version, because I’ve rather come to see them as complementary to each other: of course, in both cases you have to accept the uncanny, metaphysical elements in the story to truly appreciate it, but I believe that with the foreknowledge of their presence in both versions of events your enjoyment of the book or the miniseries will be enhanced.

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: BEHIND HER EYES, by Sarah Pinborough

 

Only a short time ago, while reviewing Sarah Pinborough’s 13 Minutes, I wrote that previous experience had taught me to expect only the best from this author, but my enthusiasm suffered a nasty blow with Behind Her Eyes, not enough to prevent me from reading her other works of course, yet enough to make me a little wary before plunging straight into another one of her novels.  But let’s proceed with order…

Behind Her Eyes starts out as a psychological thriller, and one that shortly becomes a quite compulsive read: the story is told through the alternating P.O.V.s of Adele and Louise.  The former is the fragile wife of psychiatrist David, a man prone to mood swings that seem to hint at an irritable, maybe violent nature; it’s clear from the start that there is something wrong in their marriage, although Adele does her best to present a perfect front to the outside world, and even at home she goes out of her way to please her husband and offer him the most impeccable kind of home life.   

Louise is instead recently divorced from her cheating husband and is raising alone their 6 years old son Adam: battling with loneliness and the existential problems of a single mother, not to mention the night terrors and sleepwalking episodes that occur practically every night, Louise finds a moment’s joy in the encounter with a handsome stranger in a bar, and the two of them share a kiss. Only the next morning, though, the woman discovers to her horror that the man is David, her new boss in the medical clinic where she works as a secretary.

To compound Louise’s confusion and dread, she literally bumps into Adele, David’s wife, and the two women move from a spur-or-the-moment chat over coffee to a friendship that is fraught with guilt and doubts on Louise’s side, because despite their best intentions she and David have meanwhile become lovers, and she’s quite taken with him, although the sides of his personality that she’s inferring from what Adele tries to gloss over make her think he might be a harsh control freak who terrorizes his submissive wife.

From here on the story becomes quite tangled as the narrative points of view are revealed as unreliable, one of them being shown as having an unfathomable agenda: it’s thanks to Pinborough’s writing skills that this surprise did not rob me of the thrill of discovery, because my need to understand this character’s true goal was what drove me to keep turning the pages, as the often contradictory clues piled up and seemed to move in a certain direction, only to defy my expectations time and again.

And those same skills also kept me interested in the characters’ journey although I found all of them to be quite unlikable, especially Louise: she collects bad choices as other people collect shells on the beach, and she seems unable to learn from her mistakes. Not only that, but she is a walking mass of contradictions: she knows that her affair with David is a huge mistake, not only because he’s a married man, but because she’s friends with his wife, and yet every time she finds him at her door she cannot find the strength to send him away.  And what about her alleged maternal feelings for her son? She seems to have built her life around him, but once he’s away on vacation with his father (a vacation she was at first strongly opposed to), she feels free to enjoy her illicit fling and hardly seems to reserve a though for her child except for the moments when he phones her.  And let’s not go over her massive intake of wine at the slightest drop of a hat…

Still, I could not tear myself away from the story because the author had put me under her spell, and I wanted, I needed to see where all this buildup was headed: I am not going to give any details here, because to do so would mean to offer a massive spoiler, but suffice it to say that once the fantastical element of lucid dreaming was introduced, changing the course of what had until that moment been a “simple” psychological thriller, the narrative took a whole new direction and finally moved toward the massive twist at the end, one that required the recovery of my jaw from the floor where it had fallen. Because it would have been impossible to foresee it, not until the very last second.

If the story had ended at that point, it would have been perfect – an incredible buildup leading the readers through a maze of baffles and dead ends concocted to confuse them so that they could not guess what was the author’s true intention. But unfortunately the novel did not stop at that first twist, that unpredictable revelation – no, there was a second one, and that ruined the overall effect of the story for me, because in my opinion it was an overkill: just imagine being in a fancy restaurant, and the chef comes at your table with a special dessert that he presents with a lot of flourish and a few moves not unlike those of a stage magician. Once he has your full attention he sets that dessert on fire and you marvel at the spectacle and enjoy the end result – it should end there and then but no, because the chef cuts the dessert in half and from it a flock of birds takes flight. Makes no sense, does it?  That’s exactly how I felt after that second, totally farfetched revelation.

Up until that moment I was more than willing to accept the whole chain of events that led to it, including some of the more improbable ones, but the need to overdo the… shock factor, for want of a better word, was what lost me in the end, since I am a firm believer of the philosophy of “less is more“, and that second surprise ruined the overall effect for me. Pity…

 

My Rating: