The Girl Before is the latest, it seems, in a cascade of similarly titled thrillers that have come out over the last few years. So I picked it up with trepidation, and didn’t expect very much. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised to find the book engaging and complex, with multilayered characters and an unpredictable plot. I’ve tried to keep this review free of spoilers.
As readers may have noticed, I don’t normally go for this kind of aggressively heterosexual, sexual power-play based psychological thriller, but I do love a good mystery, especially if it involves mysterious, gruesome deaths. I found myself really relishing it every time a character was revealed to be even more depraved than I thought. Surprising the reader in this way is difficult, especially when an author is writing in first person, but the effort is justified by the rewards: Emma is a diabolically complex character, and her development did not feel contrived or artificial, rather, it deepened my understanding of her story arc and made me see her actions in a whole new light. Each time one of these revelations occurred-be it Emma, Simon or Edward-I was that much more engaged with the story. For example, the revelation about the crawlspace-readers will understand-turned the story on its head: it made all the actions and words of a certain threatening rather than benign, and gave the story a shot of adrenaline that I found carried me through to the end.
Perhaps the least fucked-up of the characters is the protagonist, Jane. I’m always quite skeptical of any story whose central conflict revolves around a mother-to-be losing her child. I find this kind of relationship is nearly always framed as “the essential, universal female role”, which is reductive and, I think, ultimately harmful in that it limits the meaningful roles that women in stories are allowed to take. Add to that the fact that these kinds of narratives (I see them constantly as a reader for a lit fic slush-pile) are ubiquitous, and rarely done well.
But I’m comfortable saying that Delaney does the trope well. From the author bio, I gather that Delaney herself has been through a similar ordeal to her character Jane, but I might have guessed this even without reading the bio: the emotion in the story, Jane’s grief and resolve, rings true. She’s a complex character and a likeable hero, and she anchors the story, in a sense, and gives the reader someone to like. You may argue this isn’t necessary, but I’ve heard many people say they put a book down because they didn’t like any of the characters, so I think there’s something to it. Too many fucked-up people can alienate a reader. This also heightens the contrast between Emma and Jane: two characters whose narratives parallel one another in many ways but who, as people, are completely different. I do have one negative thing to say about the comparison between Jane and Emma: Emma is perhaps conspicuous in the story for her lack of desire to be a mother. When other, more negative, aspects of her character are revealed, this lack of maternal instinct takes on a negative cast as well; correlation is not causation, but in fiction the two are easily confused.
What I want to know is what did other readers think of Jane’s narrative? If any of you have children of your own, what did you think of the way her role as a mother colored her thoughts and actions throughout the story, especially the ending? Were you as surprised by the way the characters were developed as I was? (I might just be a gullible reader) How did you feel about the contrasts in character between Jane and Emma-did you feel (like I do, to an extent) that Emma was demonized because she wasn’t a mother?
The Girl Before is expected to come out January 24, 2017. You can preorder it here or at your local bookstore.