Source: Review copy
Publication: 2 April 2020 from Simon & Schuster
You think you know her…
But look a little closer
She is a stay-at-home mother-of-three with boundless reserves of patience, energy and love. After being friends for a decade, this is how Liz sees Jess.
Then one moment changes everything.
Dark thoughts and carefully guarded secrets surface – and Liz is left questioning everything she thought she knew about her friend, and about herself.
I was late to read Anatomy of A Scandal and loved it, so was very keen to read Sarah Vaughan’s next novel. All the things I loved about Anatomy of A Scandal are present here, too. The taut prose, the ability to get inside characters and to really understand what drives people is all present.
Excellent characterisation, an immersive and believable plot line, and a strong, resonating emotional core combined to draw me in and hold me fast.
Liz Trenchard is a pediatrician and mother of two boys. She’s working an A&E shift when Jess Curtis turns up with her ten month old baby girl. The baby has head injury that Jess doesn’t seem to be aware of, and Jess herself is telling a story that makes little sense.
Liz knows Jess. They were in the same ante natal classes and became friends, though they have not seen much of each other since Jess’s third child, this baby girl, Betsey, was born. Jess was always the composed, stylish one who made everything seem effortless, from dinner parties to personal grooming, everything she did was immaculate.
This Jess, though, is a different woman; one Liz hasn’t met before. Jess is vague, somewhat evasive and withdrawn and not at all like the Jess that Liz knew, the one who was always in control.
Liz herself is frazzled; lumbered with a bully of a consultant who has never forgiven her for taking maternity leave and as we will discover, she is also is also deeply conflicted about her relationship with her mother. Her mother’s neglect led to a terrible accident involving her brother and as she thinks about Jess she finds herself about remembering another child from thirty-five years ago.
Examining Betsey, Liz follows established protocol asking questions about what exactly happened, where and how long ago and whether Betsy has exhibited any other symptoms. These are routine questions, but Jess’s answers feel shifty and somewhat evasive and Liz realises to her horror that she doesn’t quite believe her. Because they are friends, Liz has to recuse herself from the case, but not before her consultant has torn a strip off her for not already have called in both the Police and Social Services.
This is a really difficult choice for Liz to make. A choice that goes against everything she knows about Jess and what a good mother she is. They have shared a lot as mothers and Liz has always admired Jess – a mother who has everything sussed. And yet, she knows, she can feel in her bones, that something is wrong.
When it is determined that Betsey has a fractured skull, everything that Liz believed is thrown into doubt. Nothing can be the same as Jess’s marriage, husband and her whole life come under scrutiny. Secrets are revealed and more than one life will be thrown into disarray as the pressure is piled on Jess and her husband, Ed find their lives put under the microscope.
Vaughan delicately explores themes of gender and parenting roles, with Liz expressing the view that what she really wants is a wife to do all the things she needs while she is at work. Jess’s husband Ed is a hedge fund manager whose parenting seems only to involve a little child play on a Saturday afternoon when he has time.
Verdict: Vaughan skillfully deploys her knowledge of parenting and the fears that parents bring to child rearing to build a compelling portrait of a woman in crisis which is both beautifully observed and full of humanity. The layered plot holds its tension well and is utterly believable. The fear is palpable and the pain all too real. Themes of isolation and mental health sit well across a plot in which pretty much everyone nurses a secret and which carries more than a few surprises. This is a psychological thriller that is suspenseful and emotive. Highly recommended.
Sarah Vaughan is a former Guardian journalist – news reporter and political correspondent – who always wanted to write fiction. Her third novel, Anatomy of a Scandal, was an instant international bestseller, a top 5 Sunday Times bestseller, number 1 in the Kindle charts, long-listed for the Theakston Old Peculiar crime novel of the year 2018 and shortlisted for the Audible Sounds of Crime Award, GoodReads Jury’s Out award and French Elle’s Prix des Lectrices. Translated into 22 languages, the TV rights have been bought by a US producer and writer with filming anticipated this year.
Photo: © Phil Mynott