April was my birthday month so I broke my one-book-per-month rule for Book of the Month Club and treated myself to three of the April selections. I fully intended to read them all within the month, and I was excited for them. But my box arrived 2 weeks later than usual this month, which ruined some of my good feelings. I had to do some TBR shuffling at that point and I knew I wasn’t going to get all three books read within the month when they arrived so late. But now I’ve read the first one, Araminta Hall’s Our Kind of Cruelty, a May 8th release and a Gillian Flynn-approved thriller.
About the book: Mike and Verity were together nine years. In that time, they played a game called “the Crave,” in which Mike stood far enough from Verity at a bar for another man to make a move. At Verity’s signal, Mike would step in to rescue her; this was a turn-on for them, and often led to sex. But Mike went to New York for two years to jump-start his career while Verity stayed in London, and just before he’s ready to return, Verity breaks up with him. The relationship ends messily and Verity is quickly engaged to another man. Mike believes her attempt to push Mike away for her new fiance is simply part of their code– a new, bigger version of the Crave. Is Verity’s increasing difficulty in the matter true affection for Angus, or is she amping up the game for Mike?
“She’s angry because she doesn’t yet understand what I’m doing, but really we’re just playing, we don’t mean any of this, it will all pass as everything does.”
Unfortunately, Our Kind of Cruelty felt almost immediately like a mishmash of a bunch of other books I’ve already read. Mike’s backstory reads a lot like Christian Grey’s in Fifty Shades, his stalking/murdering/jealous tendencies are very reminiscent of Joe Goldberg’s in You, his increasing alcoholism seems an echo of Rachel’s in The Girl on the Train, etc. While the plot itself (including Mike and V’s weird sex game) seemed new enough, most of the narration felt like it was constructed to fit a certain thriller formula that I’ve seen a thousand times before, except in Our Kind of Cruelty it’s never very thrilling.
This book is divided into three parts, all narrated from Mike’s perspective. It’s all part of a “document” he’s writing for his barrister after his arrest. But the big event at the end of part 2 feels inevitable from the introduction of part 1; knowing what will happen takes out a lot of the tension from the majority of the story, leaving the reader with only Mike’s precarious mental state (similar to Patrick Bateman’s in American Psycho) to keep him/her interested in the tale as it moves slowly forward. Most of the events in parts one and two seem orchestrated by the writer to demonstrate Mike’s unusual personality and thought processes, though his psychosis is apparent from the beginning of the book and most of these demonstrations feel like overkill. Many of the secondary characters as well (Kaitlyn, George, Suzi, Elaine) seem to be present in the story for the sole purpose of highlighting certain habits/opinions of Mike’s, and thus act as no more than props.
I almost wish Part Three had been the entire novel. Reading only part three would have given me the entire story without all the repetitions and slow character revelations. Repetitions can be great when they’re serving the purpose of highlighting differences between character perspectives, which I think is indeed the point of the repetitions in Our Kind of Cruelty. But when I these different characters talk about the same scenes, none of their nuances seemed revelatory– once I knew Mike’s perspective, I could filter out his craziness to see what must actually be happening, which made hearing it from the other characters superfluous.
“We are humans, flailing and mistaken, but that doesn’t matter. Because we love, we can forgive. We know the truth. We know what love is: the kindest and the cruelest emotion.”
The biggest saving grace for this book, in my opinion, comes in the Author’s Note at the end of the book where Hall talks about using this narrative to point out a problem with the patriarchy. I’m all for that, and seeing that note did make me feel a bit better about the book, but even after learning about that intent in the writing it’s still hard to actually see evidence of a jab against the patriarchy in this story. It feels more like one specific and highly unusual case than an advocacy for feminism in any form; sure, things might go wrong if Mike’s side of the story is believed and Verity’s isn’t, but the novel makes it clear from the beginning that Mike is an outlier and not the norm. It just doesn’t seem like an argument for “we should believe the woman in a he said/she said case,” but rather like a specific case of untreated psychosis and a sex game gone wrong.
And yet, for all of my complaints, nothing is actually wrong with this book; it does have the right technical pieces to make a cohesive whole. Mike is a train wreck of a character, but no matter the destruction it’s hard to look away from him.
“There was an undeniable beauty in the idea of V safely packed away in a cell just like mine, waiting to be taken out like a precious jewel in a few years’ time. It almost sounded romantic, like something we might tell our grandchildren.”
My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. It’s been a while since I’ve read a thriller so I thought even if the surprises weren’t very original I would be able to get behind a book recommended by Gillian Flynn– but there were so few surprises. I wanted to give it a higher rating just because it wasn’t really a struggle to read; I wasn’t dying to DNF it or anything while reading, which is usual for me with 2 star books. But in the Goodreads system 2 stars means “it was okay,” which pretty much sums up my experience with this book.
- Caroline Kepnes’s You is a great choice for anyone who wants to read a mysterious and disturbing tale about a psychotic stalker with a rough past and a lot of delusions. The real win for me with this book is that the stalker is somewhat sympathetic– it’s not that the reader wants to root for him exactly, but that rooting for him to be stopped would end the story and it’s too compulsively readable for that.
- Anything by Gillian Flynn. If, like me, the Flynn blurb on the cover is what draws you to this novel, let me suggest instead that you pick up one of Gillian Flynn’s own books. If you haven’t read them all, any one of them would be a better choice than Our Kind of Cruelty. Flynn’s titles include: Gone Girl, Sharp Objects, Dark Places, and novella The Grownup. Apparently Flynn’s reading choices are not as impressive as her writing ones, so approach her recommendations with caution.
Have you read any great thrillers lately? I’m in the mood now but I haven’t had much luck this year. I’ve got a copy of The Woman in the Window here with me, is that one worth the read?
The Literary Elephant