From the publisher: The ornate reading room at the Boston Public Library is quiet, until the tranquility is shattered by a woman’s terrified scream. Security guards take charge immediately, instructing everyone inside to stay put until the threat is identified and contained. While they wait for the all-clear, four strangers, who’d happened to sit at the same table, pass the time in conversation and friendships are struck. Each has his or her own reasons for being in the reading room that morning–it just happens that one is a murderer.
Let me start by adding a caveat to the above description. That synopsis only describes one of the stories in this book, and while it is the primary story, it isn’t the story that makes this book the most interesting. This is a book of layers, and not in the thematic sense. It’s a nesting doll book: an author (Gentill) writing a book about an author (Hannah) writing a book about an author (Freddie) writing a book. That seems like a lot, but basically comes down to the primary plot, described by the synopsis, and the frame story about the author (Hannah) who is writing the primary plot. You never actually meet Hannah, but each chapter she writes is separated by an email from a beta-reader named Leo, who sends suggestions, corrections, and admirations from halfway across the globe. The inner story is set in Boston, where Leo lives, while Hannah is in Australia. And just to make things a bit spicier, Hannah adds Leo into her manuscript, the way that her fictional author Freddie adds her friends (Cane, Wit, and Marigold) into her manuscript.
Now, I’m not saying all that to turn anyone off or make this sound confusing, because it really isn’t. I’m saying this because the frame around the primary plot is what turns this novel from a fairly typical old-style thriller/mystery into something more unique. It was quite enjoyable to watch the Leo-Hannah plot-line develop outside of the Freddie-et-al story, even though we only get Leo’s side of the emails. You begin to see Hannah’s reactions to Leo’s suggestions through each new chapter, especially as the story progresses. I can’t say anything more without giving away spoilers, but certainly the dual-narrative provided a far more nuanced reading.
I particularly loved the way Gentill captured voices. The chapters that Hannah sends Leo are mostly-polished, but with some mistakes that you’d expect an Australian author who has never been to the US to make. Leo is a fellow writer, as of yet unpublished, and his suggestions and corrections range from helpful to absurd. Hannah obviously doesn’t use all of them, the way a real author wouldn’t take every suggestion from beta readers. Leo is also a bit over-the-top in the way he crafts his emails, and they come off as not publishing-quality prose, because emails aren’t meant to be publishing-quality prose. He’s also obviously trying to impress Hannah, leading his missives to be a bit floral and over-exaggerated except in moments when his guard drops and his truer thoughts and emotions come through. In that way, it was masterfully crafted.
The only thing that bothered me about this book was the ending. I can’t give specifics, obviously, but the ending was very abrupt, and neither story – Leo and Hannah’s correspondence, nor the unpolished manuscript – have a satisfactory ending. Neither give us enough information. The manuscript in particular ends on a very strange note that could be interpreted as menacing OR heartwarming (it’s that odd!), and it’s unclear what Hannah wants her readers to conclude from it. I raced through the book, only to run off a cliff at the end, essentially. It’s the sort of book I wish I could discuss with someone! I still recommend it, because I thought it was clever, well-crafted, and unfettered by tired-out thriller tropes. But I do wish the ending had been more satisfactory.
Performance: The audiobook is read by Katherine Littrell. She did a fairly good job, though I didn’t really like the deep-south accent she used for the characters who had southern accents. It wasn’t, however, so exaggerated that I felt embarrassed listening. Just not my fave. Most of the book was read excellently, though!