Published by Ballantine Books on January 24th 2017
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life. The request seems odd, even intrusive—and for the two women who answer, the consequences are devastating.
Emma: Reeling from a traumatic break-in, Emma wants a new place to live. But none of the apartments she sees are affordable or feel safe. Until One Folgate Street. The house is an architectural masterpiece: a minimalist design of pale stone, plate glass, and soaring ceilings. But there are rules. The enigmatic architect who designed the house retains full control: no books, no throw pillows, no photos or clutter or personal effects of any kind. The space is intended to transform its occupant—and it does.
Jane: After a personal tragedy, Jane needs a fresh start. When she finds One Folgate Street she is instantly drawn to the space—and to its aloof but seductive creator. Moving in, Jane soon learns about the untimely death of the home’s previous tenant, a woman similar to Jane in age and appearance. As Jane tries to untangle truth from lies, she unwittingly follows the same patterns, makes the same choices, crosses paths with the same people, and experiences the same terror, as the girl before.
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The Girl Before is the next big psychological thriller to come along that employs the same ingredients that have made other ‘Girl’ books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train so immensely popular in recent years. Central to The Girl Before’s plot are the now familiar concepts of the potentially unreliable narrator that keeps you guessing throughout the novel, supplemented by a cast of characters who aren’t especially likable, and a storyline filled with twists and turns and red herrings as the reader is kept guessing as to whether a tragic event is truly an accident or if it is the result of something more sinister.
What I Liked:
The Dual Narrative Perspective: Even though I have some quibbles about a few other elements of The Girl Before, I did love how the story itself was presented. It alternates between two women, Emma and Jane, who, 3 years apart, live in the same unusual residence, One Folgate Street. The story alternates between their points of view as they live in this house. Both Emma and Jane learn that prior to their moving in to One Folgate Place, someone else has tragically died there. Emma and Jane, in turn, each become obsessed with trying to piece together the circumstances of the deaths because there are so many unanswered questions and so much gossip surrounding each death. In many ways, Emma and Jane’s investigations parallel each other, and I LOVED this, mainly because it just built so much suspense into the story and added so many twists and turns as they follow the various leads they have managed to uncover. It also had me practically screaming at both women because they seemed so hell bent on putting themselves in harm’s way just to satisfy a curiosity. It was maddening and yet so entertaining to read.
The Danger of Obsession: This is a theme that runs throughout The Girl Before and it’s a powerful one. Both Emma and Jane become obsessed with trying to solve these mysterious deaths, in spite of the fact that they may be putting themselves in harm’s way.
You might be asking yourself by this point ‘Why are these women both so hung up on these deaths? Don’t they have anything else more pressing to worry about?’ Well, the basic answer is that during their respective stays at One Folgate House, both Emma and Jane become romantically involved with Edward Monkford. That probably wouldn’t be an issue in and of itself; however, in both deaths, Edward’s name came up as a possible suspect so each lady wanted to know what role, if any, their lover played in the deaths and if they themselves are now in danger because of another added twist: Jane and Emma resemble each other, and both of them bear a striking resemblance to Edward’s dead wife. The man clearly has a type and clearly wants that type living in his perfect house. Edward is basically the embodiment of the ‘dangers of obsession’ theme.
One Folgate Street: One Folgate Street is basically Edward Monkford’s pet project and he is extremely selective about who he allows to live in the residence. The application process is rigorous and asks many probing personal questions, and if an applicant makes it through the initial screening process, which apparently very few do, they then still have to submit to an interview with Monkford before there’s any chance of approval. The house itself comes pre-furnished, although minimally so, and if approved, you are allowed to bring very few things of your own with you, and you also must adhere to the over 200 restrictive covenants that Monkford has in place to mandate and facilitate the minimalist lifestyle he expects his residents to adhere to. Eviction will result from the breaking any of those covenants, which include no pets, no children, and no books, among others (No books? Seriously, what kind of freak doesn’t want any books in their house?!)
I personally couldn’t imagine even wanting to go through the application process to live in this house, much less wanting to live the way this guy demands, but I did find the idea fascinating for storytelling purposes because it got me curious as to the type of person who would want to live there as well as the type of person Monkford is clearly looking for to take part in his little experiment.
The house itself is no ordinary house and in some ways it functions as a character in the story as well. It is always referred to by its name, One Folgate Street. It has also been programmed to employ the use of smart technology in the form of a bracelet and some other diagnostics to recognize its inhabitants and basically perform for them accordingly. If the resident steps into the shower, the water will turn on automatically at the preferred temperature, for example, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The house often seems as though it has a mind of its own, which both Emma and Jane occasionally comment on. Periodically throughout the residents’ stay there, the house will basically shut itself down until the resident takes an assessment test and answers more probing questions similar to those in the initial application. Once the test is completed, the resident may continue with life as usual. Emma and Jane each at random times even mention that sometimes they feel like the house is punishing them, especially if they’ve been in a disagreement with Edward. All of that technology in the house adds a creepy Big Brother element to the story. Are they being watched? If so, by whom and why?
Anything I Didn’t Like?
The main thing that somewhat disappointed me about The Girl Before was that I didn’t particularly like any of the characters. As those who follow my reviews know by this point, I really like to be able to connect with the characters I’m reading about and that just didn’t happen for me with Emma or Jane. I just felt like I was only meant to passively observe them in this odd, minimalist habitat rather than truly connect with them in any meaningful way. Maybe that was the author’s intent because of the nature of the story, but that aspect of it didn’t quite work for me.
Speaking of the characters, I also didn’t like the potentially unreliable narrator angle. Not because it wasn’t well done, but just because I’ve seen it in so many books lately. When it started making an appearance here, I actually groaned and said ‘No, not you too. You were doing so well without that.’ I think I’ve just read too many books in this genre in recent years and so what might be a fresh idea for some readers has become a stale one for me.
Who Would I Recommend This Book to?
I’d say if you’re a big fan of books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train or are completely new to the psychological thriller genre, you’ll probably love this. I’ve heard that it’s already slated to be made into a movie with Ron Howard directing, so I’ll be curious to see how the movie compares to the book.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion.