Tag Archives: suspense

Review: Social Creature

I’ve been on a road trip for the last week, but before I left I read Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature (which sounded a bit like The Great Gatsby meets modern thriller, so of course I was on board for an untamed extravaganza). Before I left I made notes for a review, but at no point during my trip did I have time to round it out. Now that I’m back (I’ll do an overview of the sights we saw and the books I bought tomorrow), and now that I’ve slept, I’m ready to review and return to real life.

About the book:socialcreature Lavinia and Louise meet when Louise is hired to tutor Lavinia’s sister in preparation for her SATs. Lavinia’s sister does not need Louise, but Lavinia does. Lavinia is on the search for a new best friend, and pulls Louise along to elaborate New York parties, expensive bars, and prestigious social events.  It is so different from Louise’s old life of responsibility and loneliness that she can’t let it go. Louise becomes more and more like Lavinia in appearance and behavior, but there’s a moment when it becomes clear that no matter their similarities outwardly, Lavinia is the one with the money and the power to keep Louise afloat, or take her new social life away. This moment ends with Lavinia’s death, which leaves Louise with secret power like a ticking bomb.

(This is not a spoiler. The narrator announces right off the bat that Louise and Lavinia’s friendship will culminate in a fatal end.)

“Now is the part you’ve been waiting for. You and I both know what happens now: Lavinia doesn’t make it. But the thing you have to understand is: why. Now you and I, we’ve been to parties before. We’ve done this a few times before already. But here’s the thing: you’ve never been to a party like this. That’s the whole point.”

Everyone has had a friend who’s “too much,” haven’t they? Lavinia is that friend. She’s over the top in good ways, in bad ways, in ways she’ll admit and ways she won’t. She’s the focal point of any room she enters. She’s utterly unique, and Louise is unique, but there’s something inherently relatable in this friendship-of-a-lifetime.

There were a few things I didn’t like about Burton’s writing, including the way dialogue is presented, which is sometimes clunky and makes it hard to tell who’s talking at times. Also the spaces between paragraphs occasionally make it difficult to tell how much time has passed; the gaps between paragraphs is visually pleasing, but rather unhelpful in conveying chronology.

But there were also several things I particularly liked about the writing style. Burton uses a narrator who knows what is going to happen, and who is willing to address the reader directly. This makes for a comfortably informal style of storytelling that drew me in as easily as my friends do when they have crazy stories to share.

On the surface these seem like very shallow and predictable people; they fit a type. But the more time the reader spends with them, the more distinct and surprising they become. Each of these characters has a secret history, and when the skeletons come out of their closets all manner of chaos breaks out.

“You can dye your hair. You can learn to speak with a very charming mid-Atlantic accent. You can stay up until four in the morning, missing your own deadlines, just to read somebody’s novel and tell them how great it is. But nothing, nothing you do will ever be enough. Even if somebody loves you (or they think they do, or they say they do), it’ll just be because you remind them of someone else, or because you make them feel a little less bad about having lost somebody else, or because somebody else is watching, across the auditorium, in an opera box, and they just want to make them jealous, and you were just an accessory to this.”

The most interesting part of this book, in my opinion, is the second half, when Louise flourishes and flounders after Lavinia dies. There are some interesting parallels where it seems Louise is becoming Lavinia, and their lives fuse into one being. Louise’s actions after Lavinia’s death are completely bizarre and engrossing, and had me on the edge of my seat wondering what was going to happen next. Surely the murderer is not going to get away with this crime, and it’s only a matter of time before there’s a slip-up and the truth comes out. But when? But how? These are the questions that kept me awake at night until I finished reading this book.

The only thing I would’ve changed about Social Creature is the ending. I don’t want to spoil anything, of course. The thing is, the reader knows right away that Lavinia is going to die. And as soon as she does, the reader also knows, based on how it happens, that the truth about her death can’t possibly stay hidden. But in the end, it’s not a confrontation that ends things, but a confession. An unnecessary (at that moment, anyway) confession, given to someone who has no inkling of it and doesn’t even want to believe. If there’s meaning to the way it plays out, I missed it. I like an ambiguous end, but this one could go absolutely anywhere– it’s so vague that I can’t even imagine what happens next. I don’t even know what Louise wants to happen next, though I spent nearly 300 pages getting to know her. It seemed an arbitrary place to draw the end of the story, after everything Louise had been through.

But I devoured it nonetheless. An ending can make or break a book for me, but even though this one seemed disappointing I flew through the rest of the story and I would still recommend it to fans of the literary thriller.

“There’s a reason people are able to function, in this world, as social creatures, and a good part of that reason is that there are a lot of questions intelligent people don’t ask.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Most of this book was a solid 4-star read for me; even though it’s slow at times and the parties become redundant fast, it’s highly entertaining and I was constantly wondering how things would turn out for Louise. There’s an artfulness to the compare and contrast of the girls’ lives that reveals Burton’s talent and gives the book its ominous tone. Some of my guesses were right, some were wrong, but it was a good balance. A great summer read.

Is there a certain type of book you prefer to read in summer?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Fierce Kingdom

As excited as I am about each of the books I choose from Book of the Month Club, I’m acquiring a little backlog of them. So I’m proud of myself for reading at least one of my (two) new August selections within the month! It wasn’t only satisfying to cross a title off a list, though– Gin Phillips’ Fierce Kingdom is an incredible read.

fiercekingdomAbout the book: Joan and her four year-old son, Lincoln, frequently spend their afternoons in the zoo after Lincoln’s school session. On this day, though, they’re far back in the children’s play area, completely alone, and cutting it close to make it back to the gates before closing time. Joan hears a noise she can’t place, until she sees bodies littering the ground on the path to the zoo’s exit. She spends the next three hours running and hiding from gunshots and “bad men,” trying to keep her son quietly obedient without frightening him. Animals are loose, the few straggling visitors who were trying to leave just before closing are running amok, and unexplained gunshots cut through the air near and far as night falls and the police fail to take the situation under control.

“The glass makes all the difference. A dog or cat– a domesticated thing– is totally different. A wild animal in front of you, not a pet but a real animal, is every impulse all at once. You believe it is sweet and affectionate, and this can be true, but it will also make you bleed without remorse. […] You cannot know a wild thing.”

There are a lot of great technical aspects to this book– the level of suspense worked into those three hours of panic, the focus on the psychology of the characters, the setting of the zoo, the age of the boy, the careful but not-boring descriptions of each feature of the zoo. But there are also a few details that felt weak. For instance, there are chapters mixed in with Joan’s that highlight the other characters’ perspectives. Is the purpose of these chapters to humanize the characters and make the reader more sympathetic to each of their cases? If that’s true, I think they’ve failed. Joan has such a level of observation that we learn more about these other characters, and perhaps feel sorrier for them, when we see them through her eyes. With the exception of the chapters of the gunman’s perspective, which add suspense to Joan’s terror (although they don’t give the reader much explanation of his motives, which feels like another failure), the book would’ve been stronger if it eliminated those extra chapters and stuck to Joan.

“The outside world is irrelevant. It is, somehow, clarifying to feel her shirt snagging against the bricks behind her and to feel the pain in her left shoulder where Lincoln’s weight pulls and to know that it is only the two of them, and it has been from the beginning.”

I also thought some of the plot details went a bit wonky. For one thing, there’s a time when Joan finds a supposedly soundproof room. She’s suspicious of how safe and soundproof it really is, and yet even as the girl who opens the room is talking about hearing the vibration of the vending machines through the walls, and the sound of a door opening, and the shots from the gunman, Joan never seems to pick up on these details as proof that sound passes through the room.

I was also skeptical of Joan’s inuries. She’s only in the zoo for three hours, large chunks of which are spent in stationary hiding. She’s resourceful. So it surprised me that she would be so careless about wounds– that she wouldn’t seem to mind at all when injury happened accidentally, that occasionally she would cause or exacerbate her own injuries, and that when she noticed she was injured she did nothing to care for the wounds. She seems like the sort of person who would be conscious of the dangers of blood loss or an inability to move certain parts of her body. She’s worried from the beginning about her sandal breaking, but she never takes a moment to check it and see if anything can be done to prevent that. Carelessness about her personal well-being is, to an extent, understandable while she’s so concerned with her son’s safety, but she can’t keep him safe if she’s dead. It doesn’t make sense for her to be so observant about everything around her and yet remain so blind to her own condition.

“She wonders, again, if God is punishing her for thinking her child is more important that the other woman’s child. She would do it again in a heartbeat, cannot really regret it even with the guilt weighing on her like wet wool, and she wonders, sometimes, about her ideas of God.”

Fierce Kingdom‘s strength lies in the shocking psychological layer to the thrilling tale. There is not a lot of fast-paced action, although there is some, but the real thrill originates in the shock value of what this mother will do or not do to keep her own son quiet, hidden, and safe. Would she separate from her son? Would she face a gunman? Would she face a loosed animal? How will she act toward the other people fleeing and fighting for their lives? How far will desperation drive her to go?

“This would be different if she were alone. If she had been strolling through the zoo by herself when the gunfire started. She would have run, surely. She would have hidden. But then what? She is reasonably strong and reasonably fast, and she is smart, and if she were alone, she would by now have decided that she should not be waiting around for anyone to save her.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’ve seen mixed reviews for this one, so I started out a little wary; I was pleasantly surprised. You know that tone of writing in thrillers that keeps the reader feeling like something’s off even before the action starts? This book gave me that feeling from the first page to the last one, and constantly kept me guessing even though it’s more of a race against the clock than a mystery. This isn’t a tale of a quest for answers, it’s an exploration of humanity, and it felt alarmingly plausible. Another BOTM win. 🙂

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like new psychological thrillers with an eerie atmosphere and a close look at character, check out Ruth Ware’s new release, The Lying Game. Although the plot of this one is very different (a murder mystery involving four girls who did something stupid in their days of new teenage friendship), there is also a small child in this one, with a protective mother who must stay one step ahead of the danger.
  2. Another new psychological thriller choice with high stakes and introspective focus is Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water, a well-crafted mystery of women who’ve turned up dead in the Drowning Pool. Practically everyone in town looks suspicious in one way or another, but someone knows the truth.

What’s next: I’m currently reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which is a classic fantasy/adventure that I know some small details of (Gandolf, a ring, a quest, a dragon, etc.) but not much else yet. I tend to start my classic of the month too late, but I think I will finish this one before the end of the month, and (/because) I think I’ll enjoy it.

Do you prefer classics with solid reviews behind them, or new releases you can help the book community “discover” by taking a chance before it’s proven to be great?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant