Book Review: The Girl Before by J. P. Delaney

Book Review:  The Girl Before by J. P. DelaneyThe Girl Before by J.P. Delaney
three-half-stars
Published by Ballantine Books on January 24th 2017
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 320
Source: Netgalley
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

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.

Goodreads Synopsis:

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.

* * * * *

My Review: 

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.

Rating:  3.5 stars

three-half-stars

About J.P. Delaney

The Girl Before is the first psychological thriller from JP Delaney, a pseudonym for a writer who has previously written bestselling fiction under other names. It is being published in thirty-five countries. A film version is being brought to the screen by Academy Award–winning director Ron Howard.

Book Review: Lilac Girls

Book Review:  Lilac GirlsLilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
five-stars
Published by Ballantine Books on April 5th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 496
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads

 

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Inspired by the life of a real World War II heroine, this debut novel reveals a story of love, redemption, and secrets that were hidden for decades.

New York socialite Caroline Ferriday has her hands full with her post at the French consulate and a new love on the horizon. But Caroline’s world is forever changed when Hitler’s army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France.

An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, senses her carefree youth disappearing as she is drawn deeper into her role as courier for the underground resistance movement. In a tense atmosphere of watchful eyes and suspecting neighbors, one false move can have dire consequences.

For the ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, an ad for a government medical position seems her ticket out of a desolate life. Once hired, though, she finds herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power.

The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. Their stories cross continents—from New York to Paris, Germany, and Poland—as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten.



My review:

Let me just start off by simply stating wow, what an incredibly moving read! I honestly don’t think a book has ever made me shed so many tears! If Lilac Girls doesn’t end up on all of the ‘Best of 2016’ book lists, there is just something wrong with this world.

Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel Lilac Girls is a powerful and beautifully written exploration of how women in particular were impacted by the atrocities committed by the Nazis during WWII. The primary setting of the novel is the Nazi concentration camp Ravensbruck and its primary focus, the women — primarily Polish political prisoners — who were detained there, with special attention paid to those known as the “Ravensbruck Rabbits”, a group of prisoners who were experimented on against their will by Nazi doctors.

One of the most compelling qualities of Lilac Girls is its brilliant portrayal of the strength and courage of the Ravensbruck prisoners. Up against inhumane treatment and almost certain death, they demonstrated such resilience, determination, and even at times, defiance, that it just blew me away. I found the sisterhood they created for themselves within the camp very moving as well – the way they worked so hard to keep hope alive, no matter how hard the Nazis tried to dehumanize them and strip that hope away.

The strength that the women imprisoned at Ravensbruck displayed, especially considering what they were up against, just blew me away, as did Caroline Ferriday’s efforts to fight for those who had been forgotten once the war was over. Caroline, who had already devoted much of her time to fighting for French children who had been orphaned by the war, made it her mission to get the “Ravensbruck Rabbits” both the medical attention that they desperately needed after being experimented on by the Nazis, as well as the justice they deserved. As many tears of sadness and outrage as I cried watching those women suffer at the hands of the Nazis, I have to say I shed an equal number of tears of joy at what Caroline is able to make happen for them. Her determination to make sure they aren’t forgotten was so inspirational.

I also very much liked the three-pronged narrative approach. I thought it really added a lot of emotional depth to experience WWII firsthand from these three very different points of view: 1) Kasia, a Polish woman who is actually imprisoned and experimented on at Ravensbruck, 2) Herta, a female German doctor who actually performed experiments at the camp, and 3) Caroline, a non-European who is watching from afar but who has a personal stake in the war not just because of the orphans she is trying to take care of, but also because the man she loves, a French actor, was rounded up and imprisoned in a camp when the Nazis invaded France.

The perspective that was most troubling for me to read, yet added a lot to the story, was Herta’s. What we see through her eyes is that even though she is a German, as a woman, she is still deemed as inferior to the men, as someone who should just have babies to help with the “purification” of their race. Although she is training to be a doctor, the Nazis frown upon women being doctors and so the only job she can find is the one she ends up with at Ravensbruck. What she does to the “Ravensbruck Rabbits” is clearly unconscionable and unforgivable, but it was interesting to see how she ended up where she did and what her motivations were. I thought it humanized her a bit. Her actions and her own prejudices toward anyone who wasn’t German ultimately kept me from feeling any sympathy toward her, especially her belief that she was helping her people by experimenting on the “Rabbits”, but her point of view is unique in that it’s one we don’t often see in WWII stories – that of the perpetrators of the atrocities.

Not only is this a very compelling story, but for me anyway, Lilac Girls is very educational. I was not at all well educated about the Iron Curtain and what happened to Poland after WWII ended and I also had no idea who Caroline Ferriday was, so I was grateful to Martha Hall Kelly for her extensive research in planning this novel. I would also recommend to anyone who reads Lilac Girls to also read her notes at the end as well – they add a lot to the story itself and elaborate on what was fact versus what was fiction. That said, she did a marvelous job blending the factual with the fiction to create one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

So, who would I recommend Lilac Girls to? Because of the way it shines a light on the way Poland and the “Ravensbruck Rabbits” were all but forgotten after the war ended, this is one of those important books that I would recommend to anyone and everyone. I would also highly recommend it as a must-read for anyone who loved Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale or Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. If you were moved by those stories, this one will not disappoint.

five-stars

About Martha Hall Kelly

Martha is a native New Englander but has become nomadic, splitting her time between New York City, Martha’s Vineyard and Atlanta, Georgia. She worked as an advertising copywriter for many years, raised three wonderful children who are now mostly out of the nest and this is her first novel. When she is not pressuring her husband Michael to break down and agree to buy a puppy, she is hard at work on the prequel to Lilac Girls. You’ll find more info about the true story behind Lilac Girls at her website: marthahallkelly.com and on the Pinterest account she is madly in love with.