Latchkey Ladies: Marjorie Grant (1921)

“Latchkey ladies, letting themselves in and out of dismal rooms, being independent and hating it. All very well for people with gifts and professions, artists or writers, but for us, the ordinary ones…”

Marjorie Grant’s Latchkey Ladies examines the lives of several young women in London at the end of WWI. In this world of social flux, these young women lead dreary working lives with only the possibility of dull marriages as the alternative. The book includes an extensive, informative introduction by Sarah LeFanu, and since it includes information regarding the plot, readers may want to not read this until finishing the novel.

The novel opens at the Mimosa Club which hosts a number of single women, of varied ages, for meals. The founder Miss Templeton originally intended that the club would provide “simple comforts,” to young working women, but found that older women also wanted membership. The disapproving, snobbish kill-joy Mrs Bridson, who sits in judgment on the young women every evening, feels that “war-work girls should be excluded in favour of the elderly and well born.” Mrs Bridson particularly disapproves of vivacious Maquita Gilroy, a government clerk, while Mrs. Bridson’s long-suffering companion, Miss Spicer, is much more tolerant of the young women.

The opening sequence in which a group of young women discuss the various hardships they face in the working world, presents the arguments for and against being one of the “latchkey ladies,” devoid of family or male support. The young women have “moments when independence seemed the most forlorn ambition in the world.” It’s hard to make ends meet. The rooms they live in are shabby and depressing. One girl, Lynette, thinks living at home is preferable, but Maquita argues otherwise. Anne reasons that “independence. The pleasure of earning money. The desire to escape interference” is one great benefit of leaving home, but that “the latchkey claims us, and we become slaves of the key!”

Anne Carey is the novel’s central figure. At 24, she’s engaged to a lieutenant in the army but she finds him boring. One night at a party she meets a married man, Philip Dampier, and they begin an affair. …. The novel explores the lifestyles of these young women, and the various life choices they face. Apart from Anne and Maquita, there are a handful of other young women, including Sophy Garden, and a young actress called Petunia. Possessing a latchkey indicates independence but it comes at a cost.

Through the lives of these young working girls, Latchkey Ladies records the seismic shift taking place in British society. They are a whole new generation of women working instead of getting married or staying at home with family. The war offers additional work opportunities for these young women. Between 1914-1918, more than a million women joined the work force and filled the gaps left by men at war. They may have filled those jobs but they were typically paid half the wages, and this is reflected in the drab, dreary lives of these young working women. Anne has two maiden aunts and two brothers but some of her acquaintances come from still-living parents, and this means they have other choices. There’s the underlying idea that maintaining one’s independence is wearying, and like runners who tire in the race, some of the young women drop off, give up and marry.

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The Last Chronicle of Barset: Anthony Trollope (part II)

One of Trollope’s greatest female characters is Signora Neroni who appears in Barchester Towers. The daughter of the Reverend Stanhope, Madeline Neroni went off the rails in Italy when she ran away with a penniless Italian with “oily manners.” Things went horribly wrong and Madeline Neroni returned to her father’s house crippled. Many women would have returned shame-faced, but not Madeline who capitalizes on her handicap. What a woman! She has a way of fascinating men–think a cobra–and in Barchester Towers she seduces the scourge of Barchester, the nasty, slimy Obadiah Slope, the bishop’s chaplain, to behave inappropriately in public and make a declaration of love. Of course, once Madeline has captured Slope’s heart, she shows him how worthless it is. It was with great regret that I said farewell to Signora Neroni.

When I arrived at The Last Chronicle of Barset, it was then with sheer delight to discover some other femme fatales–bad women who behave badly. The painter Conway Dalrymple has a dalliance with a married woman, Mrs Dobbs Broughton. Dalrymple and Mrs Dobbs Broughton spend a little too much time together alone, and her husband doesn’t like it. She decides nobly to “give up” Dalrymple and introduces him to the wealthy Miss Van Siever, a potential bride. Mrs Dobbs Broughton brings Miss Van Siever and Dalrymple together frequently under the auspices of portrait painting, and in her mind she creates a romantic drama in which she stars as the tragic heroine. Mrs Dobbs Broughton “used to tell herself, as she did so, that she was like Isaac, piling the fagots for her own sacrifice.” Mrs Dobbs Broughton is slated to have her own moment of tragedy, but that drama doesn’t involve love.

Johnny Eames, who has had bad luck with women (The Small House at Allington) runs into Madalina Demolines a woman who is on the hunt for a husband, and who doesn’t play by the rules. The painter Conway Dalrymple, who has his own problems with women, warns Johnny about Madalina:

“If you don’t take care, young man,” said his friend, “you will find yourself in a scrape with your Madalina.”

“What sort of scrape?”

“As you walk away from Porchester Terrace some fine day, you will have to congratulate yourself on having made a successful overture towards matrimony.”

“You don’t think I am such a fool as that comes to?”

“Other men as wise as you have done the same sort of thing. Miss Demolines is very clever, and I daresay you find it amusing.”

John knows that Madalina likes “playful intrigue,” as she drops dark hints about various women, but he never sees Madalina’s actions as potentially harmful or dangerous. John, as we know from The Small House at Allington, befriends women, enjoys their amusing company, but then finds himself much closer to the path of matrimony than he intended. There’s not much of a learning curve for John when it comes to women.

The moth who flutters around the light knows that he is being burned, and yet he cannot fly away from it. When Madalina had begun to talk to him about women in general, and then about herself,–even one so liable to the disturbance of violent emotions,–might yet be as true and honest as the sun, he knew he that he ought to get up and make his escape. he did not exactly know how the catastrophe would come, but he was quite sure that if he remained there he would be called upon in some way for a declaration of his sentiments.

Poor John is outgunned when it comes to women. Trollope explores the idea of men being trapped into making declarations of marriage, and many of his novels include proud bachelors who have steered clear of the iceberg of matrimony. Madalina can’t match Signora Neroni for wit, strategy and malicious humour, but Madalina’s role in the novel added a great deal of unexpected humour.

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French Braid: Anne Tyler

“What makes a family not work?”

Anne Tyler’s multi-generational novel French Braid takes a look at the complications and peculiarities of family life. For outsiders, family dynamics are impossible to dissect, but sometimes, even for close relatives, those dynamics are equally murky. For the purposes of the novel, the Garrett family history begins with Mercy, the daughter of a man who owns a Baltimore plumbing supply shop. A frequent customer is plumber Robin, who may appear to come to shop, but who falls for Mercy. According to Robin, “all the plumbers in Baltimore were crazy about her,” but he won. Or did he? Mercy and Robin marry and they have 3 children: Lily, Alice and David.

The novel opens in 2010 with Serena, Alice’s daughter (Mercy’s granddaughter), returning from a visit with her boyfriend, James, to his parents for the first time. The meeting appeared to go well, but when Serena spies cousin Nicholas in the Philadelphia station, the incident drives a wedge between Serena and James and also sets in motion the idea that the Garrett family are not close. What happened?

Then the plot segues back to 1959 to the Garrett family’s first holiday since Robin and Mercy took over the plumbing supply shop. Mercy has to talk Robin into it, and the family take off for a week to Deep Creek Lake in Maryland. This holiday illustrates the family dynamics and divisions already firmly set in place: Mercy goes off on her own painting a lot, Robin buddies up with another dad, and 15-year-old Lily, who is sulking about leaving a boyfriend behind, quickly takes up with a much older boy. 17-year-old Alice, possibly the only ‘adult’ here, is the observer of her sister’s antics and notes that “the boys would flock to Lily.”

It seemed she gave off some kind of high-pitched signal that only male ears could detect. (Grown men as well as boys. Alice had noticed more than one friend’s father sending Lily that same sharp arrow of awareness.)

7-year-old David, an odd, introverted child, almost drowns. So much for the ‘family’ in family holiday.

Then the novel segues to the 70s with Lily and Alice married and David bringing home a girlfriend. As the years pass, Lily and Alice lead very different lives and see each other rarely. David “serves[s] as the family’s connector.” Years pass, and Mercy notes that “so many unexpected people seemed to edge unto a person’s life, once that person had children.” Lily’s second husband, as an outsider, talks about family subjects that the Garrett family have decided to ignore. To an outsider (and I mean not related by blood) some Garrett behaviour seems inexplicable.

“So, this is how it works,” she said. “This is what families do for each other–hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few self-deceptions. Little kindnesses.”

“And little cruelties,” he said.

French Braid dissects family politics from the 50s through the beginnings of the pandemic and shows how relationships and patterns of behaviour are set in place. The great thing about these multi generational novels is that we follow established patterns of behaviour along their natural trajectories. No wonder families drift apart.

I thought French Braid was ok but didn’t love it, and this was due mostly to the only mildly interesting characters, and the rather sad cloud that hovers over the book. Mercy annoyed me and what she did with the cat was phenomenally wrong. That said, I enjoyed the dynamics between Mercy and Lily tremendously.

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Nine Perfect Strangers: Liane Moriarty

“I think we’re all trapped in the spaceship now.”

I’ve read and enjoyed Liane Moriarty’s Apples Never Fall and Big Little Lies so on to Nine Perfect Strangers which the Gerts, who gauge my tastes with great success, said I would enjoy. Nine Perfect Strangers was made into a TV series and I enjoyed that while noting that some things didn’t quite work. It’s always great fun to read the book and compare the series, or vice versa.

Nine Perfect Strangers is set at the Tranquillum House health resort which is about a 6 hour drive north of Sydney. Nine people, as the title suggests, book a 10 day retreat, and they all have their reasons for needing a very expensive “boutique health and wellness resort.” The director of Tranquillum House Maria Dmitrichenko, or Masha offers an “exclusive Ten-Day Mind and Body Total Transformation Retreat,” with the promise that “in ten days, you will not be the person you are now,” and that they “will leave Tranquillum house feeling happier, healthier, lighter, freer.” Here are the 9 guests:

Frances, a twice-divorced, overweight, successful writer of tacky romance novels. She was recently bilked by an internet dating scammer and her career is in freefall.

Napoleon Marconi, his wife Heather and their daughter Zoe. Zoe’s twin brother committed suicide 3 years previously and while the 3 Marconis are bonded by tragedy, they each harbour secret guilt about Zach’s death.

Carmel, an insecure mother of 4, with body image issues, whose husband left her for a much younger woman.

Ben and Jessica, a young couple who won the lottery and have been drifting apart ever since.

Lars, a gay divorce lawyer whose partner wants a child.

Tony, a former professional football player who is now divorced and eating and drinking his way to an early grave.

Staff-wise, there’s Masha, a former corporate executive who runs the show, and Yao and Delilah, her two assistants.

Nine Perfect Strangers is an entertaining, funny, light, slightly bloated read with a few nods to the complications of the human condition. The guests (and staff) are all damaged in various ways by life experiences, and they need to heal. Ben and Jessica were high school sweethearts and winning the lottery has ruined their marriage. Jessica sees her life in Instagram posts and is on a never-ending quest to surgically improve her body. Problem is “the more Jessica changed her face and body, the less secure she became.” Ben can hardly stand to look at the ‘new’ Jessica, and the love of his life is now his Lamborghini.

Sometimes when she spoke normally, when she was just being herself, he could forget the frozen forehead, the blowfish lips, the puffy cheeks, the camel eyelashes (“eyelash extensions”), the fake hair (“hair extensions”), and the fake boobs, and there, for just a moment , was his sweet Jessica, the Jessica he’d known since high school.

The ‘trips’ were boring to read, and the characters are mere types, and not fully fleshed. The character of Frances stole the book and the series (IMO), and the series added some sex and a thriller subplot–both of which were mercifully absent from the book. I particularly loved the deprivations of Masha’s programme and how some guests tried smuggling in contraband and expected to be pampered for all the money they spent and not … well… you have to read the book. But possibly the most entertaining section (in the book) involves Masha’s meltdown. She’s a lot more fun in the book than in the series.

Masha said, “Do you know, there was a great man. His name was Steve Jobs.”

Lars who has been expecting her to say the Dalai Lama, snickered.

“I always admired him greatly,” said Masha.

“Not sure why you took all our iphones away then,” muttered Tony.

“Do you know what Steve Jobs said? He said that taking LSD was one of the most important, profound experiences of his life.”

“Oh well then” said Lars, greatly amused. “If Steve Jobs said we should all take LSD, then we really should!”

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The Prince: Dinitia Smith

It seems bold when an author retells a great classic and places it in a modern setting. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. What Happened to Anna K? by Irina Reyn works (even though I didn’t expect it to), but, for this reader, Dinitia Smith’s The Prince, a retelling of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, does not.

The Prince opens in Manhattan with the signing of a pre-nup and an awkward meeting between Federico, the Italian Prince, and his soon-to-be father-in-law, the very wealthy Henry Woodward. Penniless Federico, who has looks and a meaningless title to recommend him, is about to marry Henry’s only daughter, Emily. Arriving for the wedding from Italy, with a plane ticket courtesy of Emily, is Christina, a friend Emily met in boarding school. Christina, unbeknownst to Emily (and Henry) had a romantic/sexual relationship with Federico. They broke up suddenly when Christina began demanding more from Federico. He was busy loafing and playing in a band “earning a pittance from gigs here and there.” Federico is almost 30, and nearly a year into his relationship with Christina when she starts talking about marriage and a child. Federico “saw an eternity before him, committed to an absolute thing, a marriage. He was practically a child himself. He didn’t have the means to provide for a family, he had no idea what he was going to do in life.” Christina sees Federico hesitate and throws him out.

Federico bounces to Jean Gavron, Henry Woodward’s art advisor, to cry on her shoulder, and Jean points out that Federico probably “just don’t care enough” about Christina to grow up. It’s Jean who introduces Federico to Emily, and suddenly he’s accepting a job that’s smoothly arranged for him in Manhattan and getting married to the very wealthy Emily. Federico is attracted to many things about Emily, but of course these same things begin to grate after a while:

Emily’s lack of knowledge about worldly things, her indifference to them, astonished Federico. Perhaps it was a kind of efficiency of her part because she didn’t have to understand.

Emily and Federico have a child together. Federico quits his job which just emphasizes his kept-man status and ups his uselessness, and then Christina shows back on the scene and quickly huddles with Henry. Next thing you know, Christina is Federico’s new mother-in-law. Ouch!

The plot with its modern setting had a lot of potential. For this reader, Federico and Christina are a couple of good-looking gold diggers who latch on to the money. One intriguing thing is Federico’s resentment of his wife’s relationship with her father, and eventually Christina’s resentment of Emily. But we never get much of a chance to speculate about motivation here as the novel is all tell–thoughts and feelings are fed to us:

Emily didn’t trust anyone to babysit, Federico felt indispensable. He had an important and vital task as husband and father.

And:

Why could she at least not be pretty, not be an eager lover, or be a wife who wouldn’t sleep with her husband? That would justify it. Why couldn’t she be sarcastic or unkind? If she were somehow “bad,” it would make what he was doing all right. She was none of those things, and it deepened his agony.

There’s a listlessness to the superficial characters as they move through their roles towards the limp ending. For all this taboo claustrophobic passion, drama and tacky behaviour, a few flying saucepans (or tiaras) would have been nice. Marriage to titled European nobility was a thing back in the Gilded Age, but here the fact that Federico is a prince doesn’t have quite the same connotation, and thus it’s practically meaningless.

My opinion of the book seems to be in the minority.

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Something Like a Love Affair: Julian Symons (1992)

After reading The Colour of Murder , I knew I had to read more Julian Symons. The Colour of Murder is an excellent crime novel: the story of a man who decides to murder his wife. She is, after all, in the way, damn it. While the basic premise is hardly new, in this author’s hands, the book is a delight. So now onto Something Like a Love Affair.

Middle-aged Judith Lassiter is married to architect, Victor. They have no children (more of that later) and live in a pretentious bungalow called Green Diamonds, which Victor designed. Victor runs his father’s company and expects to inherit it after his father’s death. In the meantime, Victor is very involved with local political business–especially town planning and new construction. Judith, who has suffered a nervous breakdown and is on pills to keep her calm, has endured family tragedy and the loss of a baby, but there are other shady doings in her past too. Perhaps this is why she sometimes “felt like two people.” There’s the Judith who is the perfect wife, preparing Victor’s breakfast of oven-warmed croissants daily, just the way he likes them, and the other Judith, “Judith alone,” obsessed with a murder-for-hire case, who observes the efficient preparations of this perfect little vanilla housewife. So there’s a process of disassociation afoot.

The Lassiters have been married for 15 years, but they have had separate bedrooms for 7. Their day-to-day relationship remains superficial. The marriage lacks sex and excitement, but it’s more than that; there’s obviously something wrong under the surface, and Judith has begun sending herself passionate love letters. She even puts the letters on the breakfast table right in front of Victor, but he never asks her about these letters. Sending oneself passionate love letters which arrive in front of one’s husband seems peculiar, or “crackers” as Judith puts it, but it’s really more than that. It’s a step towards acknowledging her desires and also a provocation. Judith writes these letter, posts them and receives them predicting, accurately, her husband’s response. It’s a test. What if she had a real affair?

Victor is a weird one. He never loses his temper and is quite jocular. He’s the sort of character who has this salesman persona, and uses it on everyone–Judith included. Since this persona is just a veneer of whatever is underneath, you can’t help but wonder just who or what the real Victor is.

The unsparing eye of Judith alone might have discerned a man a little under the proper size, no taller than herself, wonderfully neat, dapper, almost always cheerful, unable to pass a looking glass without regarding himself, forever passing a hand through his thick mouse-coloured hair, or touching the streak of his moustache as if to assure himself he was still there. That was the outer man. What would Judith say about the inner one? Nothing at all, for she would be unsure whether such a man existed. Then in a moment, as darkness cancels the picture on a television at the touch of a switch, those thoughts vanished, were replaced by the actuality of the man who sat opposite her across the breakfast table, the man whose life was linked to hers.

To outsiders, prosperous Victor and colourless Judith probably seem boring, and yet a couple of people notice that there is more to Judith than meets the eye. She seems very protected, cosseted, and naïve, but this isn’t the real Judith at all. The Judith who cleans and cooks, the Judith who is the perfect housewife is just off somehow. She’s never fully present. Debbie, the libidinous wife of one of Victor’s associates chums up with Judith and suggests that Judith should have a casual affair, and to help that process along, she enrolls Judith in a driving refresher course which comes with a hunky young driving instructor. Then there’s sexually aggressive policeman Jack Craxton who makes it clear he wants to tango with Judith. A secretive husband and an unhappy wife, add to this murder, and you get more than a touch of Blanche DuBois. If you can’t tell, I loved this one.

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The Club: Ellery Lloyd

I read Ellery Lloyd’s (writing team Paul Vlitos and Collette Lyons) People Like Her, a domestic thriller that looks at that time-sucking phenomenon: social media and how its invasiveness shapes, taints and even endangers our private lives. The Club, although quite different, seems a natural follow-up.

The Club refers to The Home Group which is a collection of ritzy resorts for VIPs. Covent garden, Manhattan, Santa Monica, Cannes, Shanghai, Venice, Paris are some of the destinations, but Island Home, with its 5000 pound per night “price tag” promises to eclipse them all. Ned Groom is the CEO of The Home Group– a “volatile genius who had built an empire on taste.” As his business empire has grown over the last 30 years, Ned has become increasingly difficult. To say he throws tantrums would be putting it mildly–rather he is abusive to his employees who are often left in tears, shaking in their shoes after one of his meltdowns. Nikki, Ned’s PA is used to these tirades and takes them in stride, realizing that they are part of Ned’s process.

The book opens with a vehicle leaving Ned Groom’s latest resort, Island Home. We don’t know who is in the vehicle which is speeding trying to get to the mainland via a causeway (accessible during low tide). The vehicle doesn’t make it to the mainland and then becomes an underwater spectacle as guests see the upturned vehicle from the viewing rooms of the underwater restaurant, Poseidon. Then the plot moves back in time to the buildup of Island Home’s opening; Ned Groom is in full abuse mode. While meltdowns occur before every opening, somehow this one feels different.

Ned was different this time. His anger less focused. His triggers less predictable. His patterns of behaviour, the swoop and swerve of his annoyances, far more erratic.

Apart from Ned’s increased temper before the resort opens, other things are going wrong. Adam Groom, Ned’s brother, Director of Special Projects, at age 49, wants more from life, and he hates his job. The head of housekeeping was fired 10 days prior to the opening, and a replacement had to be found, pronto.

Due to the VIP guest list, cameras/devices are not allowed; guests must deposit their phones at the reception area. We’ve all seen enough embarrassing celeb footage to imagine why, yet at the same time, forbidding cameras underscores the idea that the doings at these resorts may well be unsavoury.

Told from various viewpoints, including Jess, the newly hired head-of housekeeping, Annie, Head of Membership, Nikki, Ned’s PA, we see how even the rich and famous are sorted and scratched off the celebrity list. Membership is exclusive, almost 6,000 total, but only 150 are invited to a launch.

Any system like this is going to breed rancor and enemies. When celebrities “began to realize that they hadn’t made the guest list, they went into overdrive” desperately trying to get invited to the opening. Not being invited is a signal that you are on the downward slope.

“Those who did not quite make the cut instead got placed on a permanent waiting list, queuing in a line that never moved, stuck (as Annie thought of it) in celebrity purgatory.

Even though the book starts with an accident in which we know people die, there’s not much tension and the tale is slow to unroll. Ned is horrible, and his sole dictate when it comes to guests is “no wankers.” Well he’s the chief wanker and while this would make a great TV series, as a book, I found it impossible to care.

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Ocean State: Stewart O’Nan

Stewart O’Nan’s Ocean State is the story of a murder, the sort of ugly thing that makes the headlines: Angel and Birdy, two teenage girls in Rhode Island, are involved with the same boy: Myles. Angel and Myles have been an item for a while, but Myles strays with Birdy which leads to a tragic outcome. Framing the murder are the lives of Angel’s sister, 13-year-old Marie and her single mother, Carol. Carol has a bad history with men, and her two daughters, Angel and Marie have long identified relationship patterns that remain oblivious to Carol.

Carol and her daughters lead a tenuous poverty-stricken existence in an Ashaway, Rhode Island duplex, and according to Marie:

My mother’s talent was finding new boyfriends and new places for us to live.

Ashaway is a small community, and everyone seems to know everyone else. Birdy lives in Hopkinton, and both girls come from a working-class, hardscrabble family. Myles, however, comes from an affluent family, and college is in his future. There’s the implication that Birdy and Angel compete for Myles partly because of his status. He represents all they will never have. Carol’s life of a succession of loser men may have contributed to the murder of Birdy–perhaps Carol’s failures reinforce Angel’s violent need to kill her rival. Marie’s first person narrative reveals a great deal about the impermanence of her mother’s relationships:

My mother’s boyfriends tried to be sweet, but they were strangers. Sometimes they paid our rent and sometimes we split it. When they broke up with my mother–suddenly, drunkenly, their shouting jerking us from sleep–we would have to move again. Like her, we were always rooting for things to work out, far beyond where we should have. Our father was gone, and our mother couldn’t stop wanting to be in love. “I swear this is the last time,” she’d say, dead sober, and a month later she’d bring home another loser. They seemed to be getting younger and scruffier, which Angel thought was a bad sign.

The novel passes between first person and third person narrative. Myles, a central figure, remains a murky character, and it’s unclear why he participated in the murder. Even though we know on the first page that a murder has occurred and that Angel “helped kill another girl,” the story is slow to start. About 3/4 of this sad, depressing book is the lead-up to the crime and then the rest is the fallout. In spite of the serious topic, with characters set on a collision path that will end in murder, the story is not compelling, and it’s unclear what point the novel is trying to make. Interestingly, Marie, who seems to be the most sensitive one here, is the one most damaged by the crime. This was a senseless crime, and that senselessness stains the novel too.

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The Barbarous Coast: Ross Macdonald (Lew Archer 6) 1956

“Jerkiness isn’t as respectable as it used to be, even in LA. which is why they had to build Vegas.”

In Ross Macdonald’s The Barbarous Coast, Lew Archer tangles with organized crime and decadent Hollywood. Archer is called to the exclusive Channel Club on Malibu Beach by nervous middle-aged club manager, Clarence Bassett. Bassett is being threatened by George Wall, a young married man, who is looking for his missing wife, Hester and claims that Bassett knows where she is.

Before Archer even meets Bassett, he runs into George Wall trying to crash the club in a desperate attempt to talk to Bassett who refuses to see the very upset husband. Archer also meets Tony Torres, ex-fighter and now the gateman at the Channel Club.

The job to protect Bassett turns into a job to find Hester–after all the two things are connected. Hester was part of a diving show, and at one point dove with Gabrielle Torres (daughter of Tony) and her cousin Manuel. Gabrielle was murdered a year ago–found shot dead on the beach, and Manuel, once a boxer too, is now banned from the profession and has served a jail sentence. Life seems to be looking up for Manuel; he’s now an actor calling himself Lance and works for a gangster named Carl Stern. Tony Torres used to be close to his nephew and now has nothing to do with him. According to Tony:

A boy gets ants in his pants, you can’t hire no exterminator for that.

Archer’s investigations are often circular, and this one is no exception. Archer senses that Gabrielle’s unsolved murder is connected to Hester’s disappearance, and as usual, Archer’s instincts are correct. There’s a tawdry, rancid stench of shop-worn glamour to the Hollywood crowd in these pages. On one level, there are these young people, the ones with the looks, Hester, Gabrielle and Lance and then there’s the moneyed crowd pulling the strings, gangster Carl Stern, producer Simon Graf and his certifiable wife Isobel, who bounces in and out of institutions. Then there’s Bassett who hosts the rich and famous while nervously trying to keep them happy, entertained and the drinks flowing.

This is probably my least favourite Archer novel so far. We don’t get much of Archer’s philosophy (always enjoyable) and the tale lacks the usual moodiness. I didn’t buy the murder wrap-up. Many of the characters are flat, but Tony Torres is well-created, and Bassett was fun. This is a story of moral corruption and how the pretty and the young who have their looks, their youth, and their bodies to sell, are exploited as playthings by the rich and famous. All of this moral corruption is laced with the trappings of Hollywood and supported by organized crime. Naturally, the young and beautiful end up dead or kicked to the curb when their attractions fade or pall.

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The Golden Couple: Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen

In Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen’s domestic thriller, Marissa and Matthew Bishop are The Golden Couple; to outsiders they are enviable. Matthew is a good-looking buff lawyer, and Marissa owns an upscale boutique. Matthew and Marissa have one child together and live in an affluent Washington suburb. The book starts rolling when Marissa seeks counseling from Avery Chambers, a “maverick” therapist who has lost her license (red flag, anyone?) and as the book rolls on, we discover just why she lost her license. Avery’s unorthodox protocol consists of 10 sessions; it’s a sort of shock therapy but without the electricity. In the first session, which, according to Avery, always includes a confession, Marissa confesses to infidelity. Usually each session brings more clarity to Avery’s understanding of her clients’ marriage, but in this case, the more sessions that take place, Avery finds it harder and harder to put her finger on exactly what is wrong with the Bishops’ marriage.

To Avery, Marissa’s view of her marriage isn’t quite real–it’s more of a “curated Instagram” version of life. Matthew seems to love his wife, and although stunned by Marissa’s confession of adultery, he’s willing to work things through. So if things were normal, Avery would conduct her 10 sessions, the rot of the Bishop’s marriage would be revealed and turned over like a compost heap, and then the repair and healing would begin. Hypothetically, that is.

However, there are several complications afoot. Avery is threatened by a mega-pharmaceutical company for her role in a whistleblower event, plus she’s recently widowed and is still dealing with the finality of that situation. Then there’s Matthew who maintains some sort of a relationship with the perfect, blonde Natalie, a former girlfriend. She’s now divorced, flitting in and out of his life, and has more than a passing interest in Matthew. Then there’s Marissa, a woman who is fractured and is unravelling fast but who remains unsure why she isn’t happy in her marriage. Weird things are happening–several stalkers, a bouquet of flowers sent anonymously to Marissa, a nosy employee at Marissa’s boutique who spies on her boss, a mystery assailant and an old fling of Avery’s who shows up and starts snooping. ….

The story goes back and forth with chapters told by Marissa and Avery. This is a tense page turner; at first I thought since Avery was a therapist who lost her license, this was going to be a ‘when therapists go wrong’ book, but no. Avery feels freed by her lack of license, free to engage in therapy that doesn’t follow the rules–therapy that’s invasive. The authors fold out layers and secrets, so that it’s clear that many characters are not quite what they appear to be. I guessed the dark, core secret at the heart of the book, but I enjoyed the ride. Regular readers of this blog know I have a soft spot for therapist novels, and The Golden Couple, a domestic thriller (woman in danger in upscale suburbia) had enough twists and turns to keep me engaged. In non-nonsense strong-minded Avery, I can see a series character here; she’s the most interesting character in the book (Marissa is wimpy) and in Avery’s chapters, more and more information rolls out, until we see what makes this woman tick. You don’t screw with Avery.

(And I highly recommend The Woman Across the Street From the Girl in the Window, a lively, entertaining series which pokes fun of this genre–hitting all the tropes with just the right pitch.)

review copy

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