My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing

Penguin Random House

After reading a string of fairly heavy books, I needed a palate cleanser. A thriller, a page turner, a can’t-put-downer, if you will. My Lovely Wife, with its cover blasting the title in a large, imposing typeface over the distorted image of a woman’s face sporting an impassive expression seemed just the ticket. The exultation by Harlan Coben – “Wow! Riveting and full of twists” – sold it. An endorsement with not just a wow but an exclamation mark in it? It’s got to be good!

It begins with a man picking up a woman at a bar. She’s reluctant at first, but when he explains to her that he’s deaf by communicating through text on his phone she relaxes a little. They enjoy a night of passion, he leaves in a hurry the next morning, inevitably, but is rattled when she poses him an astute, observant question just as he departs. Of course he isn’t who he says he is, and soon he’s back home in the suburbs facing breakfast with his lovely wife and two charming children.

A cheating husband isn’t all he is. He teaches tennis at the local community club, where he is also a member. The lovely wife is a successful realtor, and together they provide a comfortable life for their family. But as any county club member knows, there’s always something mysterious going on behind the luminescent glow of overly whitened grins, and this family, with its handsome, athletic parents and 2.4 children is no different. When news breaks that a serial killer may be on the loose, returned to the affluent town 20 years after escaping, the community is shaken, this perfect family with it.

It’s a captivating set-up; the family has to be at the heart of this murder mystery, the dynamic between the husband and wife team points to that very early on. The story of how the couple met sheds some light on their early lives, a few pointed comments between them over the heads of their children amps up the intrigue. The story ambles along dripping just enough new information in at regular paces to keep the reader turning the pages at the end of each short chapter. But during my read something began niggling at me. Something was off! Something seemed wrong! I couldn’t quite put my finger on it…

And then it struck me; the pacing was too regular, the sentences too short, the drip-feed too consistent. It felt like a robot had written it, like an algorithm had selected the sentence structure and what was going to come next in the plot, and had plucked the characters straight out of the uncanny valley. It was weird! But strangely enough, once I had figured out what was bothering me about the narrative style I began to relax in to it and enjoy it a bit better. Get a kick out of it almost.

It’s probably worth mentioning that (as far as I know), the book wasn’t actually written by an android, but a first time novelist who, according to her author’s biography is “furiously typing away on her next psychological thriller” in New Orleans. The detached, robotic style attributed to the narration may be the hallmark of an overly enthusiastic editor, or may actually be a clever device used to indicate psychopathy. By the end of the book I still couldn’t tell you with certainty which it is. What I can say is, despite its sometimes jarring style, and its disturbing attention to the details of the murders that begin to crop up over the pages, it ticks all the boxes if you’re looking for a ridiculous, camp, wildly implausible thriller, which is what I was. It is silly but it’s probably meant to be. It’s ludicrous, but all the more enjoyable for it. Everything is seen from the perspective of the lovely wife’s husband, whose character I’m not sure the reader is supposed to feel about, and his reactions and interactions with those he encounters never really gives a full feeling of he himself. It’s all a bit bizarre, and for that alone it might be worth the read.

  • First published in The Tuam Herald on 29th May 2019

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