"A Stranger in the House" by Shari Lapena
Is the use of amnesia as a plot tool ever not a cliché?
With Lapena’s first novel The Couple Next Door (which we gave 5 out of 5 cocktails) still in my recent memory, I had high expectations for this book.
So, when pretty much the very first thing she did was give one of her central characters amnesia, I suspended my disbelief and gave her the benefit of the doubt.
I was sure Lapena would manage to use amnesia in a way I had never seen before – in either literature our soap operas – and it would be fresh and effective.
But, it kinda wasn’t.
I had deliberately avoided reading a plot description of this book, because I wanted to enter my reading experience free from expectations and preconceived notions.
The only presumptions I had were gleaned from the title A Stranger in the House which suggest to me that there would be…a stranger… in someone’s house…
I know, I’m a master at symbolism and figurative language – It’s pretty much a gift.
So, imagine my surprise when, along with the jarring use of amnesia as a pretty-fucking-significant plot tool, I also quickly find that there seemed to be very little stranger-house-lurking business going on.
Yet I read on.
Pretty much immediately, we quickly discover that this woman with amnesia – which she has as a result of a head injury sustained in a car crash – is named Karen. She’s married – still relatively newly – to Tom. Their marriage is a happy one, but it quickly becomes obvious that it’s not really an honest one.
Karen clearly has secrets. Some she’s unwilling to share and others – as a result, again, of the convenient amnesia – she simply can’t reveal.
Also playing a key role in this novel are neighbors Brigid and Bob – Well, Brigid at least. Not Bob. Bob’s pretty much a throw-away character. Forget about Bob.
Brigid and Karen are friends. What Karen doesn’t know is that Brigid has a romantic history with her husband, Tom.
Not long after being introduced to these neighbors we learn that Brigid, too, seems to be harboring some secrets.
All of this lying and relationship conflict and – did I mention – amnesia makes for quite the intricate web that Lapena leaves her readers to untangle.
And that’s usually the fun part of a thriller – the slow reveal, the careful piecing together of clues, the satisfying denouement – but, for whatever reason, in this book none of that quite seemed to work.
A large part of the reason that this book fell flat for me likely had to do with the characters. I didn’t really find these characters to have much in the way of depth. They were, without exception, bland, vanilla, flat, static characters that didn’t ring true.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I feel like lack of character development is a known challenge with thrillers. Authors, logically, don’t want to spend so much time on building up these characters that their action-loving readers lose interest. But, at the end of the day, if I don’t give a shit about the characters, I won’t give a shit about what happens to them.
And I pretty much didn’t give a shit about what happened to any of these characters.
Despite these weaknesses, there were some definite strong points within this novel – though both pretty much occurred at the end, so you had to wade through a lot of meh to get there.
First, about 20 pages from the end of the novel, we learn a rather surprising truth about one of our central characters. Honestly, this reveal, which was believable and satisfying, basically saved this book for me.
Along with providing the twist that thriller readers are literally constantly seeking, it also added some seriously needed depth to one of our central characters – About fucking time… Where’s this been for the last 270 pages?
Another strength of the ending was that it was decidedly inconclusive.
Did it all work out?
Did they live happily ever after?
Was justice served?
You end this book without a firm answer to any of these questions.
While some shake their fists at the heavens when authors employ this tactic, I feel quite the opposite. In fact, I feel that leaving an ending open as Lapena has done here takes some serious bravery as an author – because you basically know you’re gonna piss some people off and you don’t give a fuck.
Open endings are just so much more realistic.
Though it satisfies me to no end when all of the plot points are tied up in a tidy little bow and I leave the book knowing that all is well in fiction-land, it’s not realistic. We all know this. But we accept these tidy endings because we want the best for our characters – except for these characters because, as previously established, I give zero fucks about pretty much all of them.
Weighing the serious weaknesses and definite strengths, the scale comes out pretty evenly balanced.
Fans of thrillers might find the twisty ending satisfying enough to save this book, but ultimately the novel is not one that you need to run out and buy today.
It gets 3 out of 5 cocktails.