This review/book requires a trigger warning: Graphic depictions of sexual assault, rape, domestic violence and stalking
This…is a tough book to recommend to anyone. And yes, you’ll see the high star rating I gave it and wonder how that jives, but my reluctance is purely over the subject matter and not the writing or characters or plot development.
The novel follows Catherine Bailey, a British woman who we see alternately in her late twenties and then a few years later (depending on the chapter). There are also parts (including the opening of the book) that take place even further in the future.
In the early-stage chapters, Catherine is a fun-loving party girl living on her own somewhere in England. Most of her time is spent with her friends visiting various bars, drinking (to excess) and having flings. It’s at one of these bars that she meets Lee, who is working as a bouncer and who is “taken” with Catherine because she’s wearing a particular red dress. They begin to date casually, and then become exclusive, with the attractive and charismatic Lee pouring affection and gifts onto Catherine. The only red flags at this stage are that Lee refuses to tell Catherine what he does for a living as a day job, and that he frequently lets himself into her apartment when she’s not there.
In the later-year chapters, Catherine is now living alone in London. She is exhibiting signs of severe OCD and PTSD, including compulsions to check the locks of her doors and windows dozens of times per day, the need to count steps wherever she goes, the need to drink tea at specific hours of the day, and frequent flashbacks (the flashbacks are actually how we get the “early-stage” chapters). Soon, a new man, Stuart, moves into the apartment upstairs and Catherine and he begin a friendship-based relationship. Stuart is a psychiatrist, and he pushes Catherine to seek therapy and help for her symptoms.
As the early-stage chapters progress, we watch as Catherine’s relationship with Lee begins to take a dark turn. It features all the typical behaviors of a jealous boyfriend—he tries to tell her to quit her job (she refuses, thankfully), he isolates her from her other friends, he manipulates her emotionally, he tells her what to wear, he refuses to let her go out without him, etc. From there we progress to violence and finally darker things—a path we know we’re going down because we know the Catherine of a few years later, and that Catherine has been through hell.
I will say this for the book—after the first few chapters, during which I was often confused because the time jumping was a bit awkward until I got into the pattern of things—I was pretty swept away. Even though you pretty much know what’s going to happen, the author does a masterful job of holding out and building up to the penultimate scene, and then the ensuing showdown between the main characters. Catherine is extremely likeable and is also pretty smart (if naive at times)—she certainly recognizes that Lee is dangerous before any of her friends do—and you are definitely rooting for her to come out victorious. I didn’t like Stuart as much as I maybe was supposed to, but that’s because I was worried he was going to be some type of red herring. He could also occasionally be insufferable, but it’s a testament to Catherine’s character that, despite her trauma, she never balks to call him out for it.
I always weigh the importance of sexual and domestic violence in anything I read and watch—is it just gratuitous, or does it serve a purpose? I’d say in this case it’s a little of both since the book is, at heart, just a thriller. But at the same time I think it’s important to portray the reality of jealousy, stalking and abuse for the ugliness that it is, which this book definitely does. I would just stay far away if any of those topics are too difficult for you to read about, because this book does not shy away from the details.