This summer, two domestic thrillers provide a dark take on the secrets families keep from one another and the emotional damage wrought when those secrets emerge during times of crisis.
WIFE, MOTHER, STRANGER
In Watch Me Disappear, when Billie Flanagan goes missing, her husband, Jonathan, and teenage daughter, Olive, are devastated. One year later, money is tight—Jonathan has quit his tech journalism gig to write a memoir, and the bills for Olive’s private school are mounting—and Billie's life insurance money hasn’t come through. Just when Jonathan is completing the steps necessary for Billie to be declared legally dead, Olive begins having visions. She sees her mother, asking to be found, and becomes convinced that Billie is alive.
As Olive earnestly searches places similar to those in her visions, and Jonathan reluctantly revisits Billie’s belongings and computer files, incongruities emerge. Did she or did she not see her estranged parents after running away at 17? What exactly happened during Billie's years in Oregon with her ex? And if she wasn’t hiking with her trainer those weekends away, where was she? The more Jonathan uncovers, the harder it is to keep the anger and hurt out of his memoir. Because if Billie isn’t dead, then why isn’t she with her family?
Brown’s third novel is a slow-burning family drama that hinges on the well-worn question of how one can ever claim to truly know another person. The sequence of new information Jonathan and Olive discover is meant to be surprising, but once Billie’s character is firmly established in the prologue, all the twists are fairly predictable, and certainly not shocking. The strongest aspect of the novel is the relationship between Jonathan and Olive, a timid father-daughter bond that Brown captures with depth, nuance and tenderness. How Jonathan and Olive react to the destruction of their family narrative is the true crux of this novel.
RIPPLES FROM A SINGLE MOMENT
If Watch Me Disappear slowly peeled back layers of a family lie, Robyn Harding’s The Party delivers the nonstop, nail-biting tension of watching multiple characters lie and self-sabotage. Hannah Sanders is desperate for her 16th birthday party to impress Lauren and Ronnie, two popular girls who have recently absorbed Hannah into their orbit. With her parents, uptight Kim and penned-in Jeff, at odds over a past indiscretion, it’s easy for Hannah to sneak alcohol into the basement. Her party guests sneak in more booze, drugs and boys, but the festivities come to a bloody halt when Ronnie is badly injured. When the injury leads to permanent disfigurement, adults and teens alike reveal their ugly side.
In the chaotic aftermath, everyone involved makes decisions that turn a bad situation worse. Kim, obsessed with her social standing as a responsible mother, is so desperate to prove that the accident wasn’t due to neglectful parenting that she loses her capacity for empathy and spirals out of control. Jeff, chafing at the restrictions in his marriage (brought on by his own mistakes), becomes entangled in a spectacularly ill-advised emotional affair. Ronnie’s mother Lisa, devastated at her daughter’s distress, is out for revenge—and a lot of money—in a nasty lawsuit against the Sanders. And amidst the adult acrimony, the teenagers are playing out their own cruel drama to its bleak conclusion.
When their cherished beliefs are exposed as total falsehoods or naïve misunderstandings, the families in these novels are rocked to their core. Neither The Party nor Watch Me Disappear feature a true thriller moment such as a missing fact or shocking twist, but they are subtly thrilling in their adherence to the idea that human nature is darker, crueler, and stranger than we want to believe.
It’s Private Eye July at BookPage! All month long, we’re celebrating the sinister side of fiction with the year’s best mysteries and thrillers. Look for the Private Eye July magnifying glass for a daily dose of murder, espionage and all those creepy neighbors with even creepier secrets.