Before We Met (16 January 2014) by Lucie Whitehouse
Lucie Whitehouse's first two novels, The House at Midnight and The Bed I Made, are among my favourite books. I found them both completely unputdownable, believable and compelling, with brilliant, very real characters. So as soon as I learned that her third book was due out in January 2014, I had to get my hands on a copy of Before We Met as quickly as humanly possible, and you can imagine how excited I was to read this advance copy.
That said, however, the premise didn't immediately grab me. Hannah is a thirtysomething woman in the midst of a career crisis, recently having returned to London with her husband, Mark, to whom she's been married for less than a year. Hannah and Mark are both Brits who met while working and living in New York, and while Mark has a successful software business in London, Hannah can't find work and feels unmoored and friendless. So when Mark doesn't make his flight back from New York one weekend, and a bout of paranoia leads Hannah to uncover some extremely odd discrepancies in his finances, she begins to panic. Is he having an affair? Planning to leave her? It pretty quickly becomes apparent that the truth is far more complicated than that.
Before We Met is slower to get going than its two predecessors. I initially struggled to care much about Hannah's problems or the history of her relationship with Mark. This wasn't because of the way it was written, more because the subject matter didn't really appeal to me and the characters were too affluent and privileged for me to relate to (although, as it turns out, this fact is pretty crucial to the plot). However, the narrative has the same irresistible quality as Whitehouse's others: it would be fair to say I didn't care about Hannah as much as I have about the author's previous heroines, but I really wanted to know what was going to happen to her. The strongest parts of the book, for me, were those that involved Hannah working alone, chasing the truth.
In my review of The Bed I Made, I wrote about my concerns that Whitehouse was 'in danger of being pigeonholed as a writer of superior chick-lit... [and] the literary talent evident in her writing will end up being overlooked'. Although I liked the book, I do feel a bit like that's what's happened with Before We Met. It's obviously not chick-lit, but it's clearly being positioned to cash in on the post-Gone Girl twisty female-orientated thriller trend, from the fact that Gillian Flynn's bestseller is actually mentioned in the blurb, to the 'secrets within a marriage' theme, to the black-with-a-splash-of-bright-colour cover. Similarly, the narrative is very focused on delivering intrigue and shocks - it feels tightly edited and is stripped of the atmospheric descriptive power that I've always thought was a part of the author's signature style. Personally, I found this to be detrimental to the creation of tension, but I still found the plot compelling, even though I wasn't very surprised by the twists.
I'm in two minds about this book. I've loved Whitehouse's previous novels so much and I had such high expectations, and I can't deny that I was a bit disappointed in how the story in Before We Met panned out. Perhaps it should have been longer, or more detailed, or had a different setting, or a different ending - I can't quite put my finger on what it was that made this less successful for me. That's not to say I wouldn't recommend it. If you're a fan of this type of thriller, Whitehouse's superior talent undoubtedly raises it above the vast majority of the identikit Gone Girl wannabes out there, and it's extremely readable. However, if you haven't read The House at Midnight or The Bed I Made (incidentally, the latter is £1.99 for Kindle at the moment), I'd recommend you try those too, to really get a feel for her style.
I received an advance review copy of Before We Met from the publisher through NetGalley.
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