Don't Stand So Close (13 February 2014) by Luana Lewis
Don't Stand So Close is a psychological thriller that looks set to be the next big everyone's-talking-about-it book in the mould of Before I Go To Sleep. It is composed of three narratives, related - as these things usually are - in alternating chapters:
1. An agoraphobic woman, Stella, is presented with a dilemma when a teenage girl knocks on her door in the middle of a snowstorm. She would never normally answer the door, especially as her husband is away for the night, but she takes pity on the freezing, frail-looking girl, and agrees to let her in. However, her instincts prove correct when the visitor - who claims her name is Blue - reveals she is there for a reason: to see Stella's husband, Max.
2. An unnamed young woman attends sessions with a therapist, a much older man who she is constantly attempting to seduce. The identities of the pair remain unknown, and it isn't made clear when these conversations are taking place. Is the girl Blue, or Blue's mother? Is the therapist Max - or is that just what we're meant to assume?
3. In scenes taking place two years prior to the first narrative, we visit Stella in her working life. In stark contrast to her (slightly) older self, she is a talented, conscientious psychologist working on demanding legal cases involving troubled children and custody battles, while Max (not her husband or even her boyfriend at this point) is the head of her practice. As this story unfolds, we learn about both the genesis of Stella's phobia, and the development of her relationship with Max.
This is a pleasingly twisty, nail-biting mystery with a lot to hold the reader's attention. I found the pages flying by, especially in the third part of the narrative which concentrated on the rewards and challenges of Stella's job. (I could have read, and would perhaps have preferred to read, a whole book of this - it's fascinating subject matter, and the fact that the author so obviously knows her stuff makes it even more so.) I found Stella a sympathetic character, although I struggled to remember she was only in her early 30s, as something about the way she was depicted made her feel a lot older - maybe this was intentional, to highlight the draining effect of her isolation. I struggled, however, to warm to Blue, and despite all her hardships, I just couldn't like her.
I know I've said the same thing about numerous other books, and I'm aware I'm repeating myself, but while this book was very readable and tense and compulsive, there was nothing much to make it stand out in a market that's now crowded with female-centric psychological thrillers. There is no reason why anyone who enjoys this sort of thing would dislike it, but also no reason why they would find it outstanding.
Perhaps I'm being somewhat unfair here because I keep saying stuff like 'I've had my fill of this kind of thing', then reading more books that fit the same template. I suppose I'm always hoping I will be surprised with a stupendous genre-defying twist. Instead, I often find my mind racing ahead of itself and dreaming up scenarios that make the actual reveal seem tame. I think I would have preferred it if a certain part of the plot had been a red herring.
FYI, for anyone for whom this is a trigger, there is a rape scene in this book, and the way it's portrayed is effective and powerful, but it's also extremely harrowing.
I would recommend Don't Stand So Close to readers who typically love this kind of novel. Personally I think I have exhausted this genre and have read so many of these books that there's little in them that can surprise me anymore. This isn't a specific reflection on this exact book, and I do think I would have enjoyed it more had I read it earlier in the post-Gone Girl cycle. I hope Lewis someday writes a more considered and involved novel based on her experience as a psychologist, one that concentrates less on thrills and more on the legal and moral issues involved in these cases, as I think I would have enjoyed that more.
I received an advance review copy of Don't Stand So Close from the publisher through NetGalley.
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