Nina is a successful painter, life neat and orderly. Emma has left her career to care for her children, and is caught up in the drudgery of that life. When the two meet, seemingly by chance, they take to each other. But mind-games are afoot, and one woman recognizes the other from far back. That recognition guides every carefully-planned action and event that passes between the two.
Non-spoilery review: I chose this book at random while browsing at the library. I didn’t know the author, and was unaware that this was a psychological thriller. The cover talked about identity and friendship and parenthood, things that I’m very interested in. When I started the book, it took awhile to place the genre. Lane starts right in, first person from Nina’s point of view, with the assumption that the reader will figure out what and who she’s talking about quickly. At first, I thought there was going to be some sort of mental-paranormal element. There wasn’t. Straight-on psychological thriller, alternating chapters, Nina and Emma.
The basic run-down of my thoughts: I liked the writing, and the way events were often narrated from one side and then the other. I connected with both women, despite their faults. I understood both of them, and where they came from. I loved some of the things they said and observed, and loved that this book, though a thriller, didn’t run on cheap twists. I gobbled it up in a day, staying up way past my bedtime to finish – something I haven’t done in years. At the same time, I knew that my enjoyment of the book would hinge on the culmination of the relationship between the two women. The ending could make or break the book. I won’t say anything specific, but I was disappointed with the last few pages. The book was almost what I’d hoped it would be, but the very end nullified that. The last event was left unfinished, only narrated from one side, so the book also felt unfinished. Unresolved. Frustrating, given how late I stayed up. I still enjoyed it, but didn’t love it.
Spoilers after the cut.
Now, the spoilery review: This review is going to be a little longer than normal, because I want to discuss several of the central themes of the book. For me, the themes were more compelling than the plot. There were elements of The Awakening and Notes on a Scandal, two books I loved, combining them in an entirely different way. However, so that I don’t get ahead of myself, here are a few basic spoilery things from the plot that are necessary for further discussion: Nina recognizes Emma from a moment in their childhood which had no significance for the latter, but culminated in the breakup of Nina’s parents’ marriage. Nina only partly blames Emma, but feels she should have some comeuppance, and so manipulates her way into Emma’s life, often with negative consequences for the children.
Nina: Nina fascinated me. She was obviously the creator and director of life around herself. After outgrowing her unsure teenage self, she blossomed into someone confident and competent. And more than two decades since her extremely brief encounter with teenage-Emma, she holds a very petty grudge that spurs her into nearly every act she takes – even before finding Emma again. She made herself into the person she wished she’d been back then, the person she saw in Emma. Everything she does, outwardly, is for the benefit of an onlooker, rather than herself. She is purely facade, and entirely unaware of this fact. When she thinks happily about her success, it’s a spiteful happiness, especially after seeing how far Emma has fallen. A “you never really saw me, and now look how far I’ve come” kind of smirking happiness.
All the way up until the very end, Nina’s actions are petty and malicious, but not terribly harmful. She babysits for Emma and her husband, Ben, and makes sure that the toddler, Christopher, will wet the bed and wake up in the night, so that Emma will be tired and inconvenienced. She leads Christopher away from the park while his mother’s back is turned, then calls the police claiming to have found him. No harm is done to Christopher, but Emma’s panic is converted to guilt and shame after the brief loss. Everything is designed to make Emma question herself, to make her less and less of that confident person she once was. The irony is that despite all this, Nina’s attention and friendship awakens in Emma the memory of who she once was, and the hope that, as her children grow, she might find that person again someday.
Nina ruminates often on the little things that are forgettable to one person, but significant to another. Emma does not remember Nina, though there’s some hint that she kinda remembers at the end. (Personally, I would have preferred Emma to never remember.) For Nina, though, the flippant, unimportant contact from their late teens is so significant as to have shaped her entire life and identity. Emma didn’t even wrong Nina. She wasn’t mean or judgmental (as the text implies will eventually be revealed as the case), but instead, is one of those girls who is “beautiful…a bit careless,” as the text says – “how dangerous they can be.” It’s a case of indifference hurting more than outright hostility.
There’s equal treatment given to how memory is retained, trauma through insignificant moments, and comparison between Nina’s own frozen memories, insignificant except not, and the potential her actions might be imprinting on Christopher’s life and memory. These small acts – gaslighting Christopher about what really happened the day of the park incident; not smiling at him as she chases him in a game, so that he becomes truly frightened – become their own kind of significance. When Nina casually tosses his beloved bunny in the garbage where no one will ever find it, it represents a cruelty far more potent, to my mind, than the act that occurs in the last pages, when Nina crosses over into outright violence (far less interesting!).
Emma: When I first read The Awakening nearly a decade ago, I was saddled at home with three kids under the age of six, as a stay at home mom for the first time, entirely oppressed. People who have never stayed at home with kids have no idea how difficult it is to get anything done. I cried all through the book, and the line, “The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days,” has remained one of my favorite quotes of all time. You can love your children and still feel, as Emma does in Her, that “I spend so much of my life stooping.” Reading from Emma’s point of view was terrifying and oppressive, how her husband doesn’t see just how difficult her situation is, how she’s slowly losing herself to the title of “mother.” I felt the same as when I read Edna’s story in The Awakening, or Sarah’s story in Little Children, or watched Laura Brown in my favorite movie, The Hours. Sympathy of motherhood, of oppression, or of, as Nina puts it, “the tyranny of domesticity.”
Honestly, I could spend hours and hours, pages and pages, on this theme alone. It was this, really, that drew me into the book, even more than Nina’s fragile and warped psychology. And I think that this is also why the ending disappointment me so much. I loved the irony of Emma finding herself again in Nina’s attention, even as Nina is doing everything she can to fray what’s left of Emma’s sanity. I loved the circling, the careful steps, the manipulations that could have been so much more than thriller, bordering on literary, worthy of much discussion. The ending just…nullified that, to my mind. Cheapened it, perhaps. If Emma hadn’t ever remembered, Nina’s machinations would have been in vain. If Nina’s actions had remained in the realm of almost-inconsequential, she would have won in secret, triumphant without Emma ever being the wiser. Both could have failed and prevailed at the same time, and fallen away from each other, more events that, in the long run, would be neither significant nor insignificant, but both.