“Emma in the Night” by Wendy Walker

Emma in the NightOver the past few years, I have had the misfortune of dealing with a couple of people who I’m pretty certain have narcissistic personality disorder, the subject of Wendy Walker’s new thriller Emma in the Night. These are truly toxic individuals who can ruin the lives of those close to them. For those of us further out in their orbits, the best thing to do is just disengage.

In the novel, Cassandra Tanner is the victim of her mother’s noxious parenting style, which frequently pitted her against her older sister Emma. After her parents’ divorce, 11-year-old Cass made the mistake of asking to live with her father, which sealed her fate: “Don’t ever call me Mother again! To you, I’m Mrs. Martin!” her mom raged. And so Cass “became the outsider… all [she] could do was watch from a distance.”

A few years later, both Emma and Cass disappeared. Until one day, Cass returned alone, recounting how she and Emma had been living on an isolated Maine island with a couple who essentially kept them prisoner. Then Cass drops the bombshell that Emma had been pregnant when they left home, and that she had given birth on the island. The childless couple began to raise the infant as their own, despite Emma’s protestations. Finally, after months of planning and scheming, Cass was able to escape, but unfortunately, she has no idea where the island was located or how to find it. The couple were using fake names. How can she figure out how to get back and save her sister and the child?

First-person chapters narrated by Cass alternate with third-person chapters told from the point of view of Abigail Winter, an FBI agent working on Cass’ case. As it turns out, Abby also grew up with a narcissistic mother, so she identifies deeply with the girl. There are strong hints, however, that Cass is that old thriller standby: the unreliable narrator. Abby needs to figure out which of her tales are true, and which are pure fiction, in order to solve the case and find Emma.

This book should appeal to the many thriller readers out there who love twists, but I found it somewhat hampered by pedestrian prose; Abby’s mind “was spinning… round and round like a dog chasing his tail,” or Cass “just raised the stakes in a game [her mother] didn’t even know she was playing.” Or, “Evil can dress up as love so convincingly that it blinds you to the truth.” That’s not bad writing, just not terribly fresh or insightful. Perhaps it’s more noticeable because a lot of readers (me included) will turn back to the beginning and reread portions of the book once all has been revealed, to see if Walker played fair. I believe she did; the clues are all there, if you look closely enough.

“Mrs. Fletcher” by Tom Perrotta

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom PerrottaThe cover of Mrs. Fletcher depicts a woman alone in bed holding a smartphone, her face illuminated by the screen’s glare. If a copy of this book somehow managed to make its way back to the mid-2000s, the pre-iPhone era, it would seem almost inscrutable; it takes place in a world where people’s lives are ruled by their smartphones, the devices serving as a source of entertainment as well as vehicles for miscommunication and misunderstandings. The only way Mrs. Fletcher could be more up-to-the-minute would be if Tom Perrotta had somehow worked in a reference to Donald Trump’s Tweets. (The novel, presumably written pre-November 2016, takes place in a blessedly Trump-free universe.)

Ambitiously, Perrotta is trying to capture The Way We Live Now, from college students up to retirees. Stuck in the middle is Eve Fletcher, a divorced empty nester whose son Brandon is struggling to adapt to college life. Eve works as the executive director of a senior center, “a place where low-income seniors could come to eat a federally subsidized meal and then get their blood pressure checked by a nurse and their problem toenails trimmed by a kindhearted podiatrist.” She enjoys her job and is proud of the work she does, but at the same time, she feels bored and lonely and in desperate need of a change.

The book features rapidly shifting points of view, switching from third-person sections focusing on Eve and her colleagues and friends to first-person chapters narrated by Brandon. He is kind of a stereotypical teenage lunkhead, far more interested in partying and hooking up than he is in actually learning things or planning for his future. His roommate Zack’s arc is actually more compelling than his own, even though Zack is only a tertiary character in the novel.

As for Eve Fletcher herself, she finds herself in a strange situation—addicted to Internet porn—after an anonymous text pops up on her phone: “U r my MILF! Send me a naked pic!” Despite being indifferent to porn in the past, she now finds herself checking out MILF porn on Milfateria.com on a regular basis: “She disapproved of the site—she would have been horrified if she’d ever found anything like it on her son’s computer—and sincerely wished it didn’t exist. But she couldn’t stop looking at it.” (In the real world, Milfateria.com only exists as a parked domain at GoDaddy; it appears to have been registered by Steven Brykman, who has interviewed Perrotta in the past, so I’m guessing he’s a friend or acquaintance of the writer. I kind of wish they had done something fun with the domain, even if they’d only posted an image of Stifler’s Mom.)

Eve also goes back to college to take a gender-studies class, which leads her to make some new friends, though things ultimately go a little sideways, as Perrotta fans might expect. Like most of his novels, Mrs. Fletcher is an easy, breezy read, if perhaps a bit overstuffed with characters (the fact that two of the primary females in the book are named Amanda and Amber caused me a few moments of confusion). Now that the HBO series based on his 2011 novel The Leftovers has come to an end, I’m glad Perrotta has returned to chronicling the highs and lows of middle-class, middle-aged American life.