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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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Review: All the Missing Girls

A murder mystery told backward. That’s one I hadn’t heard before. If you haven’t tried it yet and love reading uncommon techniques, check out Megan Miranda’s debut adult thriller, All the Missing Girls. It’s a gasp-out-loud shiver-inducing sprint from cover to cover.

About the book: Nic(olette) has escaped the clutches of tragedy and suspicion in Cooley Ridge, NC–or so she thinks. Ten years ago, her best friend went missing after a night at the town fair, and the investigation–although unfruitful–poisoned the town with rumors and doubts. Nic couldn’t face staying in town with her friends and family, and immediately set on a path to get out. Her father, however, has been losing his mind and burning through his savings, which brings Nic back to town to help her brother sell their father’s house. It’s supposed to be a temporary trip, a short break from her fiance, a trial to be suffered through and quickly forgotten, but on the night of Nic’s return, a second girl goes missing and every detail of the old case is forefront news again. Nic is reunited with her old crew, secrets that have been kept quiet find new ears, and somehow, Nic knows, the two cases are connected, because the danger is brought right to Nic’s back door–which sports a broken lock that clearly doesn’t deter trespassers.

About the layout: This book is divided into three sections. The first part shows Nic at her new home in Philadelphia, with her smart, wealthy fiance and the life she built for herself away from the horrors of her childhood home. The second part, as advertised, is told backwards (pay close attention to details here–they all matter, and if you miss something you’ll be flipping back and forth trying to pin it down). The double murder mystery takes about two weeks to resolve, and is narrated with each day described from beginning to end, in backwards order. The third part shows where the pieces fall in the aftermath.

allthemissinggirlsFor the first half of the book, up to Nic’s first week in Cooley Ridge (the second week narrated), I feared the story was letting me down. There didn’t seem much benefit up to that point of a backwards structure, but the tension flies sky-high in the second half as the reader begins to realize no one can be trusted–least of all our narrator. Nic mentions a few times that she, like everyone else, hid things from the detectives in the first case ten years ago, but it’s not until we’ve seen a solid week of the second search for a missing girl that we start noting a few jarring differences between what Nic says early on in the book (late in the case), and what we see has actually happened previously. Nic is a consistent narrator throughout, though, and while she seems to refrain from lying to the reader outright, she’s remarkably adept at half-truths. This makes sense, structurally; for the reader to see the end of the search and not have the keys to unlock the mystery until the end of the telling (Nic’s first day back in town) clearly something must have happened immediately upon Nic’s arrival that she’s concealed in her future narration.

And that is what I love about this book: all of the characters–especially the narrator–have complicated backgrounds and are wholly untrustworthy, or so it seems. There are a few gems, but everyone is shady enough to bear the brunt of suspicion at some point in the book. There are no stereotypical characters here. Secrets keep their lives twined together, but the fact that they all have different secrets also isolates each one of them, adding to the possibilities for uncertainty and deception. Nic’s closest allies are all tied up in the disappearance of the first girl–when it becomes clear that she is gone forever, doesn’t it mean one of them must be a murderer? Who can she trust?

“They were people you called with news: I met a guy. I’m engaged. I got a new job. To share the highs and the lows. But friends to call for deep things, the things that live in the dark spaces of our hearts? Those people didn’t exist for me any longer.”

The best/worst aspect: Megan Miranda’s writing style. This is simultaneously the downfall and the upshot of this book for me.

Downfall because there are a few aspects that are too spelled out, comments that are too on-the-nose: especially the mentions of time-out-of-order being able to teach you something. This statement varies and multiplies throughout the story, even making it into the dialogue once, and that annoys me more than anything else in the book. I want to be able to see the benefit to learning the story out of order, rather than be promised repeatedly that there is one. I did appreciate the unusual chronology after the mystery was solved, but the book was still trying to point out that it was out of order and that that was a good thing. There are a few other comments–about the setting, mainly–that also felt a little insulting to my reading intelligence to have pointed out, but the time references are the the most cringe-worthy.

The upshot, though, is the fantastic creepy vibe of the story. The characters and the town itself are described so well and made so complex that I felt I knew each of them well, and yet still wasn’t quite sure what they were capable of. Cooley Ridge is small enough for everyone to know 2/3 of everyone else’s life, enough that surprises are pleasantly jarring but have enough wiggle room to be completely believable. At times I trusted the characters so thoroughly that the police and the unjustified rumors seemed like an unfair enemy battling good people, but there were other times I distrusted them so completely that I knew the police were eerily spot-on with their questions and their assumptions about who wasn’t as good as they seemed. The descriptions, combined with Nic’s thoughts about the fragility of life, give a skin-crawling sensation that really make the story–even at times when there seems to be no imminent danger, there is always that creeping feeling that something is slightly off. The characters, to an extent, are willing to embrace darkness. It was this tension that kept me turning pages.

“How quickly you might go from something to nothing. How one moment you can be a girl laughing in a field of sunflowers, and the next, a haunting face on a poster in a storefront window. How terrifying, empty and hollow, and then: how absolving.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. The end of this book had so many surprises that I kept guessing wrong, then reconsidering everything and guessing again. The unpredictability was so addicting that I couldn’t put the book down. Before I got to that point though, the tension from the backwards structure made things slow and awkward. I read Nic’s arrival to Cooley Ridge and wanted to know what would happen next, but was thrown into the thick of things two weeks later. I read what happened two weeks later and wanted to know further results, but was sent back to what happened in the middle. It was hard to restrain myself from picking through the book to find the specific days I wanted to read most, and that was an uncomfortable struggle I didn’t enjoy. It was minimal, and the slow parts would certainly be more interesting in a second read-through after all of the character’s pasts have been revealed, but it did disappoint me enough in this first read to keep me from giving it all 5 stars. I am glad I bought it though, to peruse the different parts of the timeline at my leisure. There’s a lot in this book worth looking at closely.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a great thriller with similar levels of mounting anxiety and uncertainty about which of the people in the main character’s small environment may be a murderer. This one also uses a non-chronological structure for some elements. Check out my full review here.
  2. For an even more haunting and gory tale (perfect for October) check out Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, another small-town thriller that hits the narrator close to home. The main character of this one also harbors an unsolved murder case in her past that is the topic of much speculation, and a present day event brings old danger to her life all over again.

What’s next: Earlier this year I read Sara Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls and finished the book with mixed feelings (you can read my review here for more info). Now I’ve got my hands on her second book in the same series, The Killing Forest, and I’m giving these characters a second chance. Stay tuned to find out whether Blaedel’s second murder mystery about Danish investigator Louise Rick hits the mark.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant