In this literary thriller, a privileged woman’s life unravels when a figure from her past seeks her out.
In 2014, Watch Hill, Rhode Island, is a moneyed summer haven of yachts and “fifteen-bedroom ‘cottages.’ ” For middle-aged Susan Ford, née Bentley, it’s the 18th summer she’s spent there since meeting her husband, Jack, who died five years ago. With her friend (and stepson) Jack Jr., Susan helps to run a real estate business. The last thing she expects on a calm morning in August is a visit from the FBI, and questions about a man named Samuel Fakhouri. She claims not to know him—but when agents picked him up, arriving in Boston from Baghdad, he had Susan’s name and address on him. She stalls the feds so that she can visit her Fifth Avenue apartment in New York City, where she retrieves an old white envelope and a gun from a safe. When she meets again with the FBI, she’s ready to admit that she once knew Sammy, and the narrative moves to 1979 and suburban Detroit. Back then, Susan was an ambitious college student working at Frankie’s Disco for the summer with her friend Annie Nelson. Annie is bold, “impossibly beautiful,” and impulsive, and an unlikely pal for studious, serious Susan. Through Annie, Susan meets Sammy, a handsome Chaldean Catholic from a village near Mosul, Iraq. He’s one of the regulars at Frankie’s, and when he later takes her on a date, Susan doesn’t mind when she notices that “a gun had peeked out from Sammy’s waistband when he leaned in to kiss her.” In fact, the element of danger only seems to make him more attractive to her. As the past haunts the present, Susan must confront the secrets, lies, and choices that she made before she became Mrs. Ford.
Royce, an actress and a story editor for Miramax, imbues her debut novel with plenty of drama, suspense, and sharp observations. For example, in the scenes set in 1979, she has Susan study “the indigenous peoples of Frankie’s” like a social scientist: “Italian-American men, Chaldean men, odd unaffiliated men, and pretty girls…leggy all-Americans, whose parents neither knew nor cared where they went on hot summer nights.” In 2014, she’s still noticing similarly telling details, as when she describes Jack Jr.’s seersucker suit as “just the right level of rumpled. His bowtie and pocket square are in matching yellow silk with a tiny pattern of Labrador Retrievers.” The other characters’ reminiscences and backstories, too, help to establish them as three-dimensional personalities. The novel’s sense of time and place, whether in Detroit or Manhattan, or in the 1970s or the 2010s, is always vivid and well-rendered. At first, it will be unclear to the reader why Susan is so filled with dread, as even the memories of 1979 seem fairly innocuous at first. However, Royce cleverly builds up troubling circumstances that drive toward a dramatic twist, which readers will find to be both plausible and unexpected.
A compelling, well-written thriller with an effective, twisty plot.