Review: The Perfect Stranger

I read Megan Miranda’s 2016 thriller All the Missing Girls (narrated backward, to surprising effect–link to my review below) last fall, and was eager to pick up her 2017 (loosely termed) companion novel, The Perfect Stranger.

About the book: Leah Stevens’ journalism FullSizeRender (14)career (or more accurately, her quest for the truth) has tanked and sent her life spinning off in a new, unprecedented direction. Eager to escape the fallout, she runs into an old roommate at a bar and agrees instantly to relocating to a small west Pennsylvanian town where she’ll acquire her teacher’s license in a hurry and work at the local high school. Her chosen roommate, the enigmatic Emmy, is running from her own past, like Leah. Leah doesn’t pry. But when crime becomes a problem in the previously quiet town and Emmy doesn’t come home, Leah must risk having her own history dredged up to report Emmy missing. As the cops start the search–led by the attractive Detective Donovan, who’s after truths of his own–Leah is forced to admit that there are a lot of important details she doesn’t know about her friend. When strange links keep appearing between the death and destruction sweeping through town and Emmy’s suspicious actions, Leah is more shocked than anyone to realize that the common denominator to all the town’s emerging problems is the name Leah Stevens. Somehow, even Leah is involved, though everyone has a different opinion on whether she’s a suspect or a victim–or still in danger.

“I had brought myself to a place where people stop caring who you are or what happens to you. The type of place where people don’t look too closely or for too long.”

With many thrillers, the scare comes from the twists and turns, the implications and surprises of the wrong person being in the right place at a bad time. With this one, the creepiness emerges not through the plot twists, but through Leah’s internalization of everything that’s happened in her life. She’s got a history of being accused rather than helped or believed when she tries to tell someone the truth, so she holds everything closer now. Truly, there’s not much action at all for the first two thirds of the book, and yet that was the part that hooked me. The scary parts of this book are the surety that some things will not work out right for the narrator in the end. She has done things wrong that will prevent her from going back to her old life and being re-accepted by the people she’s left behind. There are truths she can’t ever reveal about others because they’ll cause problems for her, too. The scary part is seeing that something dangerous is going on now, and there’s nothing she can do about it.

With her experience as a crime reporter, Leah’s accustomed to proximity with the morbid and frightening, and dismisses it easily. When the trouble starts in Pennsylvania, when she realizes it started long before her move to Pennsylvania, Leah sees that she’s been in danger longer than she ever realized.

“The problem was with me. I had become effectively desensitized to the danger of words.”

Leah’s close relationship with the main detective on the case is both helpful and hindering. He’s the kind of guy who, like her, is willing to bend the rules to uncover the truth. This means that he’s willing to share more information with her than he should, sometimes, but also that when it suits him he’ll use her to reach his own goals, regardless of the consequences for Leah. They need each other, but they can’t quite trust each other. He’s a compelling character in his own right–he’s not the cop that shows up in most thrillers, and that’s why I liked him. He’s just a guy. Sometimes he’s part of the problem. He feels even more real than Leah sometimes. Megan Miranda does supporting characters well.

On another note, while the reader is always looking carefully at every word the characters speak, looking for double meaning and hidden motives in thoughts and statements? Megan Miranda takes a new tack in The Perfect Stranger–or, at least, a less common one. She points out that the reader should be thinking more about what’s not present than what is, which makes the story more of an engaging read, trying to assemble pieces that aren’t even there.

“Sometimes it’s what’s missing that’s the answer. Sometimes that’s the story. The missing knife. Or the No comment, or the demand to speak to an attorney. Sometimes what they don’t say is all the evidence you need.”

My thoughts in context with All the Missing Girls: after the unique structure (the backwards chronology) of Megan Miranda’s first adult thriller, I expected something more from The Perfect Stranger than a straight-forward thriller; and thus, I found myself a little disappointed. I also had been under the impression that these were companion novels–even the cover designs seem to suggest that–but they really don’t have anything beyond genre in common. However, while the story wasn’t quite what I expected, it did interest me enough that I read the whole book in three sittings, in just over 24 hours. Also, the writing style seemed much improved in this newer volume. I didn’t experience those cringe-worthy moments of seeing the writing trying to point something about itself out to the reader the way I did in All the Missing Girls, which made the narration more pleasant in this one.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. While not my favorite thriller of all time, I did not regret reading this one. These are the sorts of thrillers that don’t wrap up neatly, that leave some hidden truths still secret at the end. I like that. I’ve given both of Megan Miranda’s thrillers the same rating, but if I really had to choose a favorite I’d probably say I liked All the Missing Girls better. There are pros and cons to each, of course. I would read another one if Megan Miranda were to publish a third adult thriller in upcoming years, so I’ll be on the lookout for that.

Further recommendations:

  1. All the Missing Girls, firstly, would be a good choice for fans of The Perfect Stranger who haven’t yet read Megan Miranda’s first adult thriller.
  2. If you really want to read a mystery/thriller with a startling (and downright spooky) ending, check out Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes. I’m talking about the kind of ending that leaves readers with the creepy-crawlies, the kind of ending that you never see coming though all the clues are there.
  3. If it’s disturbing characters you’re after, and surprising tactics like Megan Miranda’s backwards narration in All the Missing Girls, don’t miss Caroline Kepnes’ You, a creepy “romance” thriller in which the narration is provided by the unbalanced stalker.
  4. And finally, if you like the struggling/ruined journalist aspect mixed with small-town intrigue, try Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, where one writer goes back to her hometown to write a story that she did not expect to turn personal.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Leigh Bardugo’s Ruin and Rising, the third and final book in the Grisha trilogy, which I started earlier this year. I can’t wait to see how it’ll all end, and then to dive into the Six of Crows duology soon, as well. Although I don’t particularly like all of the characters in this trilogy, I can’t wait to find out what Ravka’s fate will be, and what will become of the Darkling. I’m determined to finish this one before the end of April, so expect a review soon!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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