"Believe Me" by J.P. Delaney
Given that I’m an unabashed nerd, it should come as no surprise that I love theater.
In high school, I demonstrated this love by tirelessly chairing the costume crew. I was… and still am… much better at sewing on buttons than tap dancing… or any dancing for that matter.
But in college, despite the fact that I did not major in theatre, by some happenstance, I had occasion to take a very large number of acting classes. This, for me, was odd because I really don’t like being the center of attention.
In fact I absolutely detest, and actively avoid, it.
A fat teenager to the core, I always felt ungainly and out of place in social situations and I really didn't want people looking at me. But when my shyness went to war with my desire to maintain a 4.0, the grade factor prevailed. I sucked it up, donned a cloak of bravery and did the occasional monologue, as uncomfortable as it may have been.
The opinion of Claire, the protagonist in this novel, couldn’t be more divergent from mine when it comes to the topic of basking in the glow of the spotlight.
She feels exceptionally at home on the stage.
She loves being looked at.
She loves being admired.
She loves being the center of attention.
It is her hunt for this adoration that brought her to New York City to study at a prestigious — READ: expensive AF — acting school.
This isn’t Claire’s first time on the stage, though. She had some minor success as an actress in her home country, England. But she managed to kill whatever momentum she was gaining by having an affair with her married co-star.
So New York is extra important. It’s her chance to start again. Her chance to actually make it big in the world of acting.
She’s so determined to make the most of this second chance that she won’t let anything — even the fact that she’s broke as a joke — stop her. Desperate to earn the money she needs to live in this expensive city and remain in her expensive program, Claire takes a questionably legitimate job working for a law firm acting as bait for married men.
Her job is simple — make herself visible and available, but wait for the mark to approach her.
Given the level of comfort she feels in her own skin, it’s not surprising that Claire performs this job well.
But then, everything changes.
The wife of one of the men she was assigned to trap is murdered.
Now, the police want to modify the rules of the game. They are certain that the woman’s husband, Patrick is the culprit. And they need Claire to help them prove it. They want her to directly pursue this man — who not only may have killed his wife but has also has dedicated his life to studying a poet whose works focused on masochism and murder (so, basically, he’s a scootch creepy).
To Claire, this assignment seems scary, but simple. Though she’s not exactly thrilled to cozy up to a maybe-killer, the things the police offer her in return are just too tempting. So she agrees to the arrangement.
What she quickly finds out, however, is that the assignment is far from simple. What she’s really agreed to do is crawl into a spider web. And, though she does so thinking she’s the spider, trapping Patrick in the intricacies of her gossamer web, she quickly comes to realize that she may have it backwards. That she may, really, be the prey.
Though I typically begin my evaluation of a novel by discussing weaknesses, when exploring this book, that’s exceptionally hard to do. This is primarily due to the fact that the weaknesses were so minimal and the strengths so substantial.
So, I’ll start with the strengthens.
I mean, these aren’t REALLY spoilers… I’m going to keep it vague-ish… but if you want to go into this mofo blind, you should read the book now and then come back and read this later. #PublicServiceAnnouncement.
One inarguable strength of this novel was the way in which this author established and used an unreliable narrator.
Now, sure, the concept of using an unreliable narrator is hardly unique. But what I did find rather original, and decidedly less common, was the use of a narrator that at first appears reliable and is only later revealed to be less than trustworthy.
Much like the female lead in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, readers began this novel feeling a kinship to Claire.
She had gotten a raw deal.
She had a rough go of it.
She was just trying to do her best to make her place in the world.
It's only later that we come to question whether what we know of Claire is real. It’s what the infusion of this uncertainty added to depth to the character that I found absolutely delightful.
Another strength of this novel was the pacing of the main character’s development.
Claire was dynamic AF. And, unlike so often when a character undergoes a massive change throughout the course of the novel, her evolution was largely believable.
The best way for me to explain this would be to use my favorite analogy — Yes… I’m a nerd… I have a favorite analogy. And a top three favorite words (1. Chagrin, 2. Ubiquitous, 3. Predicated), in case you were wondering.
My favorite analogy is the frog soup analogy. In case you don’t know, this is the idea that, if you're going to make frog soup, you don't try to dump the live frogs into a pot of boiling water. Instead you put them in the pot with cool water and put it on the stove.
Because the water heats up so incrementally, climbing degree by degree, the frogs don't become alarmed and try to jump out.
It's so gradual, they don't even notice.
Now, whether this is true or not, I honestly couldn't tell you. I've neither made, nor eaten, frog soup — I'm more of a Panera broccoli cheddar girl, to be completely honest.
But I find this analogy particularly apt to the process by which a novelist needs to have a character undertake a significant shift.
If, on one page, the character is scared and timid, and on the next she's Sheena, fucking warrior princess, it's not going to feel real.
If, on the other hand, the author takes his or her time, and allows this shift to happen little by little over the course of, say, a hundred or so pages, it can be not only believable, but profoundly satisfying.
Because it feels real.
Because, in real life, we are all gradually changing. We are all, taking in experiences and adjusting our attitudes and outlooks accordingly.
And, it was because this author truly took her time with our protagonist’s shift, from being relatively certain that her mark was a perverted serial killer to developing an infatuation and, dare I say, falling in love with him, that it was so amazingly effective.
The only element of this novel I could even begin to potentially find fault with was the conclusion.
My first thought upon reaching the conclusion of Believe Me was, “Meh... really?”
Could an actress really — would an actress really — do all of the stuff that happened in this novel?
Would she be so committed.
As I pondered this question, I thought back to a high school production of Grease.
I, per usual, was ensconced backstage, stitching up snagged poodle skirts and buffing the scuffs off of T-birds jackets.
But a friend, with whom I shared a marching band past, had the lead female role. Sandy.
It was the third night and, as she prepared to head on stage for the performance, she threw up.
IDK if it was some bad Wendy's®, or if she was sick. What I do remember, though, is that, without batting an eye, she took the stage... because the show must go on.
I, personally, abhor vomiting and, if I do have to vomit, I'm checked-the-fuck-out for the next week at minimum.
I still remember being absolutely amazed that she was able to gargle some Scope® and hit the stage.
My point is, maybe, if this high school drama club member could do that — could shake off tossing her cookies in a standard, industrial, plastic wastebasket moments before singing "Summer Lovin'" — just maybe Claire could do what she did in this novel.
Either way, I’m not even sure I could categorize this ending as a fault given the strength of the novel as a whole. Ultimately, I found it to be authentically surprising, supremely unpredictable and delightfully naught.
With its sweeping narrative and unforgettable main character, it earns a solid 5 out of 5 cocktails.
This twisty thriller hit me just right. And now I want another one! What's your favorite twist-tastic read? Tell me about it in the comments, below.