There comes a point in many people’s lives when they wonder, what if I could start over? What if I could be someone else, free of the baggage and the travails that have accumulated until now? In Chris Pavone’s suspenseful new novel, Two Nights in Lisbon, recently married couple Ariel Price and John Wright have shirked their former identities for new lives unfettered by past encumbrances.
Or so they think.
Only Pavone knows their secrets, and he reveals them slowly and deliberately, expertly seeding the novel with intrigue and suspense, one page at a time.
While accompanying John on a business trip to Lisbon, Portugal, Ariel awakes to an empty bed. She immediately reports John’s absence to the police and, when they don’t appear to be overly concerned, the American embassy. The authorities have plenty of questions for which she only has vague answers, because John has his own secrets; decades of his life are unknown to her. Her panic intensifies as his absence lengthens, and then her worst fears are confirmed with the arrival of a ransom note. As Ariel learns more about John, and Pavone reveals more of Ariel’s secrets, the collision of both characters’ pasts and presents fuels the increasingly thrilling tension.
“We tell ourselves stories about each other, about ourselves too, our pasts. We construct our narratives,” Pavone writes. “Maybe she doesn’t know her husband at all.” Pavone himself had to reinvent his life in 2015, when he left a successful career as a book editor to move to Luxembourg with his wife. His Edgar and Anthony Award-winning debut The Expats explored this territory, and Two Nights in Lisbon proves that it’s still fertile ground, packed with stay-awake-all-night thrills for readers.
Chris Pavone's latest novel is packed with stay-awake-all-night thrills as it follows a recently married couple with no shortage of secrets.
The characters in Chris Pavone’s thrillers often find themselves trying to bury the past in an effort to begin anew. In his latest novel, Two Nights in Lisbon, Ariel Price thinks she has successfully left her old life behind. But after she wakes up in their Lisbon hotel room to find that her husband has vanished without a trace, she is confronted with all the secrets he was apparently keeping from her. We talked with Pavone about this ongoing theme, his approach to creating characters and his transformation from book editor to novelist.
What was the initial inspiration for this novel, and why did you choose Lisbon as the setting? A few years ago my family spent a handful of nights in Lisbon, in a sun-flooded suite facing a charming square, an absolutely beautiful place to start the day, and I thought: This is almost too perfect, something horrible should happen here. I love novels that seem at first like one type of story, then turn out to be something very different, and I developed a vision of this perfect-looking hotel room as the launching pad for characters who seem extremely lucky but aren’t; for a story that looks romantic then isn’t (but then ultimately is); for a narrative that looks like it’s about a missing man but is about something else entirely.
The plot of the book began to develop when the “Access Hollywood” tape revealed that Donald Trump seemed to have committed sexual assault regularly, as a sort of hobby. To me this wasn’t a question of politics. I simply could not understand what it was about these sex crimes that made it so easy for people to excuse them as so-called locker room talk, to dismiss them as partisan attacks. I despaired about what was so broken with our society, and what could be done about it.
Anyone who reads one of your books knows that you keep chiseling away at your characters over the course of the story. Two Nights in Lisbon’s Ariel is particularly surprising. Did any of her secrets come as a shock to you? I needed to know all of Ariel’s skeletons from the get-go, because her secrets are the underlying framework of the whole story, and their reveals needed to be organized in a way that supported everything else without being coy or blatantly withholding. I think one of the greatest challenges of writing suspense fiction is to withhold in a way that’s not too obvious. If you’re flagrant, it erodes the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief and makes the whole thing feel contrived and the ultimate revelations unearned.
Ariel often thinks about status signifiers and the way she’s perceived by others. Do you think we worry too much about how people perceive us? I’m definitely not qualified to be prescriptive about how all of humanity should behave. But I do wish we could somehow reconsider how we value one another. We heap tremendous rewards on dubious achievements, not to mention things that aren’t achievements at all; being young, rich and beautiful is the opposite of an achievement, it’s just luck. It’s probably unavoidable for most people to envy good fortune, but should we admire it?
Our culture increasingly celebrates fame for its own sake, completely divorced from any talent or skill or contribution to anything, while at the same time encouraging women to pursue careers in being beautiful, creating a dangerous dynamic of objectification and self-objectification that to me looks both exhausting and terrifying. Just walking down the street, getting a coffee, browsing in a bookstore—you’re always about to be ogled, accosted, propositioned. And that’s not the worst of it. Not by a long shot.
If you scratch beneath the ticking clock thriller plot of Lisbon, these are some of the themes you’ll find. But you can also just tear through the pages to see what the hell happens. This isn’t homework.
At one point in the novel, Ariel says she and John don’t participate in social media because it’s ruining the world. Do you share her opinion? I think social media has made it way too easy—irresistible, for some people—to lie with impunity, to fabricate alternate realities, eroding the very idea of truth. One of the things that seems most broken about America now is that we all exist in hermetically sealed echo chambers, driven largely by social-media feedback loops that reinforce opinions we already have and keep out any evidence to the contrary. A lot of us now refuse to leave our comfort zones altogether, and there are fewer and fewer shared cultural touchstones, less and less agreement on the fundamental facts of the world.
I think every time someone posts a picture of themselves in a fake private jet, they’re contributing to this insidious erosion of truth, one that’s just as dangerous as a disinformation campaign by a hostile foreign power. We’re losing the capacity to distinguish between truth and lies and, even worse, the ability to care.
I don’t participate in social media very assiduously. I’m there mainly for videos of dogs, for photos of my friends’ adorable children and to keep in touch with people. I’m pretty sure that I won’t end up on my deathbed wishing I’d been more self-promotional on Instagram.
As a former book editor, do you find yourself editing your own drafts? What advice do you have for writers who struggle to prioritize production over perfection? I edit constantly. I edit every day while I’m writing a first draft; that’s how I start the writing day. After I eventually type “the end,” I spend more time editing and revising subsequent drafts than I did writing the first.
I don’t accept the idea that writers should prioritize production over perfection. The world doesn’t need more novels. I think what readers truly want are better novels. Or at least that’s what I want—not more choices but better choices. This isn’t journalism, and there’s no clock on it. The crucial thing is to write a great novel, not just to write a novel.
People like to throw around the advice that while you can edit a bad page, you can’t edit a blank page. Maybe so. But that philosophy only works if you do the necessary editing of the bad pages. It’s very hard to kill your darlings, especially for writers who don’t have a lot of experience with rigorous, ruthless editing.
With five books under your belt, would you say that your transition from editor to writer is complete, or are you still learning things? What’s something you wish you’d realized earlier on? I’ve now been a full-time writer for a decade and a half, and it still feels largely new to me. I’ve accepted that imposter syndrome might be permanent. It seems so unlikely that I’m allowed to earn my living by sitting around and writing made-up stories; sometimes it seems impossible that anyone could be this lucky.
I wished I’d realized earlier how much revising I’d do, on everything. For my first couple of books, all this work felt sometimes like failure. Why do I have to keep fixing this goddamned manuscript? I thought I was doing something wrong, and I hoped that next time I’d nail the novel on the first draft, or even second. But revisions are apparently a big part of how I work. I can’t see what’s missing from a manuscript and which aspects could be much better until I get to the end and look back. I no longer think of this as a problem that I need to fix; it’s the way this process works for me, and it’s a luxury that I’m thankful to indulge.
Ariel says she wants to be a person without fear. What are you afraid of, and have you conquered those fears? A novel is a very personal piece of creativity. It’s your voice, your worldview, your whole personality on the page, and publication is opening up that personality not only to reasonable professional criticism but also to deeply personal and sometimes irrational attacks, even the vitriolic hatred of strangers. (Thanks again, social media!) It’s a little bit like going to a giant party filled with everyone you’ve ever met, then having those people write reviews of you to be posted on the internet for everyone to see.
I used to be afraid of being hated, as both a real person in the real world and also as a writer of made-up stories. But I’ve accepted that there are many people out there with whom I disagree about nearly everything, so it makes sense that I’ll disagree with their judgment of my book, too, not to mention their judgment of me. I still don’t enjoy being hated, and I hope I never do. But I’m not afraid of it anymore.
What’s the next step in the evolution of Chris Pavone? Where do you go from here? My twins are about to graduate from high school and go off to college, ending this long stage when parenting has been the organizing principle of my life. This makes me both ecstatic and morose, every single day. I have no idea where I go from here.
The pull of shared history is incredibly strong, as demonstrated in this trio of new sister-centric thrillers. There’s strangeness and estrangement, intertwining and unraveling, joy and terror as these sets of siblings revisit the past in hopes of forging a better, less frightening future.
Blood Will Tell
In Blood Will Tell, a tense new thriller by Heather Chavez (No Bad Deed), a quick trip to the gas station kicks off a chain of increasingly frightening events that thoroughly upend Frankie Barrera’s life.
The single mom and middle school math teacher has no idea why other customers are glaring at her as she pays for her gas. She figures it’s due to mistaken identity or perhaps just a case of the grumpies. Then a text alert brings everything into sharp, shocking focus: Her pickup truck was included in an Amber Alert. Her first reaction? Utter confusion. Her second? Curiosity about whether Izzy, her impulsive and unpredictable younger sister, had anything to do with it.
Frankie soon realizes Izzy was indeed involved, but figuring out how and why will require upsetting trips back into long-suppressed memories of a chaotic night five years earlier when a scared, drunk Izzy had called Frankie for help because she had been in a terrible car crash and wasn’t sure what had happened. Chavez does an excellent job of conveying both the disorienting haziness of a painful past and the push-pull of the sisters’ desire, and reluctance, to face the truth.
Criminals circle and legal issues loom as the sins of the past collide with those of the present. Time is running out, and Frankie and Izzy must decide: Can they end their codependence while solving the mysteries of that fateful night once and for all? Through its unflinching focus on the unhealthiness of entrenched familial roles, Blood Will Tell shines a light on the ways loyalty can become more damaging than nurturing, more misguided than wise.
I’ll Be You
If you had to guess which identical twin and former child TV star would be the one to disappear at the beginning of bestselling author Janelle Brown’s I’ll Be You, you probably wouldn’t pick Elli.
She and her twin, Sam, have had a painfully tumultuous relationship for many years. Sam’s struggles with addiction made it impossible for them to maintain the closeness they reveled in as children, and their former-manager mother’s insistence on reminding them of their so-called good twin/bad twin personalities (that would be Elli and Sam, respectively) has never been helpful either.
But even when things were at their worst, Elli was always there, ready to help or listen. She wouldn’t just check herself into a spa for an indefinite amount of time, leaving everyone, including her recently adopted toddler daughter, behind . . . right? Despite her mother’s refusal to acknowledge that harm might’ve come to Elli, Sam decides to follow her instincts and investigate her estranged sister’s life in hopes of bringing her back home.
After all, Sam thinks, “Who else had ever studied her as closely as I had? Who had ever seen me the way that she did?” But as Sam pores over Elli’s files and tries to talk to her prickly new friends, a distressing pattern emerges, and she realizes the Ojai spa Elli is visiting might not be a place for relaxation but something more sinister, even cult-like. Even worse, the Elli with whom she had swapped places many times has now become an enigma. Elli might not even want to be found.
Readers will enjoy the on-tenterhooks feeling of I’ll Be You as Sam tries to simultaneously maintain her sobriety, fend off her mother’s barbs and track down the elusive Elli. Brown’s depiction of addiction and the toll it takes on Sam, Elli and their family is empathetic and affecting, as are the sisters’ attempts to establish individual identities while keeping a close connection—an eternal struggle for all of us, certainly, but especially challenging when the singular intimacy of twinhood is involved.
The Children on the Hill
What if intimacy that once was a balm for trauma transformed into something twisted, perhaps even deadly? Jennifer McMahon explores this painful possibility in The Children on the Hill, her follow-up to 2021’s bestselling The Drowning Kind. Deliciously gothic details and eerie vibes set the stage for a supremely creepy, often incredibly sad tale inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
In 1978, Violet “Vi” Hildreth and her brother, Eric, enjoy an idyllic childhood on the grounds of Vermont’s Hillside Inn, a psychiatric hospital presided over by their beloved Gran, the renowned psychiatrist Dr. Helen Hildreth. The kids have created a monster club, even collaborating on The Book of Monsters, which is all about the beings they believe are lurking in the darkness.
When Gran brings an orphaned patient named Iris to stay with them, Iris and Vi form an intense bond. Vi resolves to help the traumatized Iris figure out where she came from, even if (especially if) subterfuge and sneaking around are involved.
In a parallel storyline set in 2019, returning to Vermont is the last thing Lizzy Shelley wants to do. She’s a popular author and podcast host who travels the country in pursuit of scary creatures. She believes that monsters are real, and that her long-lost sister is one.
McMahon’s teasingly gradual reveal of the event Lizzy is referring to provides copious thrills as bizarre goings-on unspool, bit by bit. (And yes, a secret basement laboratory is involved.) The alternating timelines converge in shudder-inducing ways that invite readers to ponder these questions from The Book of Monsters:“Don’t we all have a little monster hiding inside us? A little darkness we don’t want people to see?”
Through its innovative take on Shelley’s tragic and memorable classic, The Children on the Hill offers an absorbing contemplation of a sisterhood forged in shared pain, in longing to feel less alone even under the most monstrous of circumstances.
Family secrets and sins cast a long shadow in these thrillers, which center on the relationship between sisters.
Alicia Bessette’s first Outer Banks Bookshop Mystery, Smile Beach Murder, brings readers to Cattail Island in North Carolina, where the sun shines and murder is in the air.
After losing her job, former reporter Callie Padget begrudgingly moves back to Cattail. Callie has a complicated relationship with the coastal community: While she loves the people and history of the island, her mother died after falling from the town’s famed lighthouse when Callie was just 12 years old. Everywhere she goes, she’s reminded of her mother and the life they might have built together.
Callie gets a job at the local bookstore, where she runs into Eva Meeks, the older sister of one of her school friends. Eva’s searching for books to help her with a treasure hunt and invites Callie to join in the fun. But the next day, Eva’s body is discovered at the base of the lighthouse. While local police believe she killed herself, Callie doesn’t, and she sets off to uncover a murderer on Cattail Island.
Bessette captures the charm of the Outer Banks with her vivid descriptions of laid-back island life. It’s easy to root for Callie, who’s resourceful and brave even when she finds herself staring down confessed killers and deadly sharks. And readers who have lost a loved one will relate to her journey to process the loss of her mother. Callie is still surprised by the depth of her grief, despite the time that’s passed, and her emotional development throughout the novel is made all the sweeter as she slowly embraces Cattail Island and all it has to offer. Readers will finish Smile Beach Murder cheering for Callie and eager for many more cases to come.
Alicia Bessette’s first Outer Banks Bookshop Mystery, Smile Beach Murder, captures the charm of island life even as it offers a moving perspective on grief.
To enjoy James Patterson and Dolly Parton’s Run, Rose, Run (10.5 hours) to the fullest, you must listen to the audiobook. Not only is it a necessary companion to Parton’s album of the same title (featuring songs inspired by the novel), but the cultural icon also voices one of the main characters, veteran country music star and bar owner Ruthanna Ryder.
With her unmistakably sweet Southern drawl (which she once cheekily described in Rolling Stone magazine as “a cross between Tiny Tim and a nanny goat”), Parton imparts wisdom and warnings alike through Ruthanna’s character. Up-and-coming singer-songwriter AnnieLee Keyes, expertly voiced by country pop singer Kelsea Ballerini, brings youthful exuberance and hopeful naivete to the story, providing a counterpoint to Ruthanna’s sage advice about navigating the music industry.
AnnieLee’s pursuit of country stardom in Nashville, from the dive bars on lower Broadway to the business-minded studio executives on Music Row, is a familiar story, but Parton’s involvement as author and performer elevates Run, Rose, Run a thousand times over. Additional characters come to life through the voices of Soneela Nankani, James Fouhey, Kevin T. Collins, Peter Ganim, Luis Moreno, Ronald Peet, Robert Petkoff, Ella Turenne and Emily Woo Zeller, creating an ensemble experience for book listeners to enjoy.
With narration from country stars Dolly Parton and Kelsea Ballerini, Run, Rose, Run is a must-listen ensemble audiobook.
Claudia Gray’s The Murder of Mr. Wickham is a cozy locked-room mystery set in a world populated by Jane Austen’s beloved characters.
Emma and George Knightley have decided to host a monthlong house party at their estate, Donwell Abbey, and have invited some of their closest friends: the Darcys (including their son, Jonathan), the Brandons, the Wentworths, the Bertrams and Juliet Tilney, the daughter of Northanger Abbey’s Catherine and Henry. During the first days of the party, the very-much-not-invited George Wickham makes an appearance to collect a debt from Mr. Knightley, and we quickly learn that every person in attendance has a grievance with Wickham. Austen fans will already know from Pride and Prejudice that the Darcys’ interactions with Wickham were the opposite of pleasant, and he is still up to his nefarious ways in Gray’s novel: An investment scheme has robbed some couples of their wealth, he is blackmailing Fanny Bertram, and Colonel Brandon has a particularly heartbreaking past with the scoundrel.
When Wickham is found dead one stormy night, it is apparent that someone staying or working at Donwell must have committed the crime, as the muddy roads were too impassable for a stranger to arrive. After witnessing the local magistrate’s bumbling efforts, Juliet and Jonathan form an unlikely partnership, as both are determined to solve the crime.
The Murder of Mr. Wickham is not a novel for Austen purists. The reader must accept the conceit that the characters are all acquainted (in a foreward, the author explains how she tweaked the timeline) and, furthermore, that one of the beloved characters may be a murderer. On the way to reaching the mystery’s satisfying solution,, readers also get to see that all the couples still have struggles within their marriages. Those who believe Austen’s novels ended with a firm happily ever after may be dismayed by this development, while others will be fascinated by how Gray complicates the relationships between the various characters.
Readers looking for a charming mystery will adore this book. Gray captures Austen’s tone perfectly, allowing fans to step back into the Regency author’s beloved world. And despite the presence of iconic characters such as Emma Knightley and Lizzie Darcy, the newly invented characters of Jonathan and Juliet are dynamic in their own right. They quickly become adept at working together, and there is a hint that romance is on the horizon.
The Murder of Mr. Wickham will allow many Austen fans an opportunity to revisit the characters they treasure, and solve a mystery to boot.
Claudia Gray’s The Murder of Mr. Wickham is a cozy and charming mystery set in a world populated by Jane Austen’s beloved characters.
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With his new historical spy novel Midnight in Europe, celebrated author Alan Furst brilliantly illuminates an era on edge, during the troubled time preceding World War II, when a dark cloud of civil unrest and war slowly begins to envelop Europe.