We believe what we want to believe. We believe what we need to believe. Maybe there’s no difference between wanting and needing. I don’t know. What I do know is that the truth can evade us, hiding behind our blind spots, our preconceptions, our hungry hearts that long for quiet. Still, it is always there if we open our eyes and try to see it. If we really try to see.
Three years ago, sisters Emma and Cass went missing. On the day Emma in the Night opens, Cass turns back up on her mother’s lawn with a story of captivity and escape. Cass insists that Emma and her young daughter, born on the island where the sisters were held, is still there awaiting rescue. Leading the FBI’s efforts to untangle what happened is forensic psychologist Dr. Abby Winter, a woman still healing from the wounds the case left when it was fruitlessly investigated three years prior. Dr. Winter never got over the conviction that Judy Martin—Emma and Cass’s mother and a textbook narcissist—was involved. But how would Judy be tied to the couple who kept Emma and Cass hostage on the island? The more the bureau digs, the more the stories –including Cass’s—begin to unravel. Why is Cass lying? And who else is?
The story is told in alternating chapters by our omniscient narrator following Cass and Dr. Winter/Abby, though the chapters following Abby fell flat for me. I’m not sure if the author spent more time with Cass (I didn’t count pages and am not going to now), if she was better developed, the first-person narrator for Cass helped, or I simply identified with her more. The end result for me, however, was that Cass felt more well-rounded and I cared about what happened to her. In contrast, Abby’s trauma is obliquely referenced but doesn’t ever feel well fleshed out. For the reader to really appreciate how this case affected Abby, rather than vaguely referencing her (also narcissistic) mother and telling us Abby substitutes alcohol for sleep, Walker needed to show us. Because of the reference to her background with no real flashbacks or substance, the book almost read as if it were a continuation in a series and the reader should already know Abby’s background rather than a new stand alone book with a fleshed out character. I did, however, appreciate that Dr. Winter and her partner Leo could have a history as friends, work together through the entire book, and keep their friend boundaries. The book would have been way too messy had this become a romantic relationship.
Though I found her more compelling overall, I did find Cass’s voice inconsistent through the narrative. Particularly in the first 2/3 of the book, she comes across as very childlike though she’s 18 when the book opens. This could be explained by her being emotionally stunted by her narcissistic mother and three years in captivity, yet Cass’s decision-making and her voice age up quickly to that of an 18 year old in the last chapters of the book after the truth is revealed. This did not feel like part of Cass’s manipulation, but rather an inconsistency in the writing.
Emotionally brutal plot
While Emma in the Night is, relatively speaking, not a physically violent/graphic thriller overall, it is shockingly emotionally brutal. As the novel progresses, more and more of Judy Martin’s background and her treatment of her children is revealed. At times, these stories of Judy’s pathological choices are as disturbing as graphic scenes of violence. This is not a book I would recommend for friends who are survivors of child abuse themselves or work closely in that field—this would not be an escapist read.
Along the same vein, even for a psychological thriller, the lengths the various characters go to manipulate each other is extreme, though nothing quite like Gone Girl. The book has the feel of an unreliable narrator because of how manipulative each of the characters are, though Cass never lies directly to the reader. While Cass’s sections are written in first person, Abby’s are an omniscient third person, which lends to the odd/untrustworthy feeling of the entire narrative.
If you’ve read some of my other reviews, you know that accuracy in mental health portrayals can make or break a book for me. I’m not familiar with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, so it was harder for me to judge those aspects here. It rang true for the little I know and I didn’t see anything in the DSM that would make me question whether Judy’s portrayal in Emma in the Night was inaccurate.
I did struggle some with Cass. As I noted, her voice shifts about 2/3 of the way through the book and she makes some choices that would have seemed out of character or even impossible in the early chapters. In contrast, her explanation as to how she could have gotten used to life over the last three years ring true—people, especially children, can be remarkably resilient. We can also be our own worst enemies at times when evaluating what we deserve. Cass’s monologues for the earlier parts feel accurate to me for someone who had survived trauma. With the later parts, however, I do not see how this woman-child possibly gained perspective and made some of the choices she made without serious therapy. I hope for her sake, she got some when the book ended.
Overall, this was another easy palate cleanser. (I may be the only person I know who treats thrillers like palate cleansers, but my usual fare is either LitFic or deals with heavier topics like racism or transphobia). But I digress—Emma in the Night isn’t perfect, it isn’t high fiction, but it isn’t trying to be. It is a much-better-than-average contribution to the thriller genre and has a unique twist with the in-depth look at narcissistic personality disorder and how it may (or may not) have contributed to what happened. The book isn’t too neat or terribly unbelievable but has a definite ending. There’s more than one twist, which makes figuring out everything going on more of a challenge or surprise, depending on how you read thrillers. I recommend Emma in the Night for fans of the genre or anyone looking to pick up a dark, fast-paced thriller that doesn’t read like a police procedural—with the caveat about the subject matter mentioned above.
Finally, if you’re like me and occasionally wonder what on earth made you go to law school, it’s always nice to see a lawyer succeed at something more interesting than being a lawyer. On days when I almost can’t take it anymore, I can comfort myself with the idea that maybe I too could become a novelist like Walker.
Published August 8, 2017 by St. Martin’s Press (@stmartinspress)
Author: Wendy Walker (@wendygwalker)
Source: Book of the Month (chosen by guest judge Krysten Ritter @therealkrystenritter)
Date read: September 18, 2017
Rating: 3 ½ Stars