Swanson’s (Her Every Fear, 2017, etc.) fourth suspense novel once again offers a bleakly idyllic setting, an intricate plot, and, à la Patricia Highsmith, remorseless sociopathic villainy.
Just before college graduation, Harry Ackerson is summoned home abruptly. His father, not quite 50, has died, presumably from a fall during a cliffside walk. Harry arrives in coastal Maine, where he’s consoled and fussed over by his young stepmother, who, at 35, is exactly halfway between Harry’s age and his father's. Harry isn’t sure what to make of Alice, an “otherworldly” beauty whom he doesn’t know well; his father, a secondhand bookseller, left New York to open a second location here just a few years ago, and he married his realtor. Soon the police tell Harry they think his father might have been murdered, and the enigmatic Alice, whose clear seductive interest Harry finds both provocative and suspicious, points toward the husband of a female bookstore employee who was, she reports, carrying on an affair with her husband. Meanwhile, at the funeral, Harry spots a lovely young woman he can’t place. She claims at first, not persuasively, to have impulsively moved to Maine from Manhattan, where she lived near the elder Ackerson’s shop, but Harry—again, both skeptical and smitten—recognizes that she’s more entangled with his father than she’s let on. Pinched between two women he desires but can’t trust, Harry tries to unravel the mystery. Swanson neatly intercuts chapters that fill in Alice’s troubled and troubling youth, but he too insistently invokes Lolita, a dangerous point of comparison not only because he can’t match Nabokov’s magisterial prose, but because it’s impossible to take on the notorious psychopathy at that book’s heart without having something of its author’s command of tone and empathy.
Swanson’s novel has the twisty plot and page-eating pace one expects from him, but it lacks the finesse and psychological acuity required to make its villains quite believable.