Two New Literary Thrillers Work the Shallow End
Diverting page-turners that fall short
Joshilyn Jackson and Sally Hepworth are New York Times-bestselling novelists who fit handily in the Venn diagram overlap of literary thriller queen Liane Moriarty and relationship-driven fiction maestro Jodi Picoult.
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Jackson and Hepworth’s newest titles are diverting page-turners that no doubt will join their predecessors on best-seller lists. Each is a good read. But both fall short of great due to weak handling of key plot points.
Who took the baby?
Jackson’s Mother May I introduces us to Bree, a cosseted married mother of three, including infant Robert. Bree can’t shake the feeling that someone creepy is spying on her. We quickly see that she’s right, when Robert disappears from his car seat, right next to where she’s watching one of her girls rehearse a school performance.
Understandably, Bree will pretty much do anything to get Robert back, so she agrees to the kidnapper’s demands. There will be no police, just punishment of Bree’s husband’s super shady co-worker via some pills Bree is supposed to slip in his drink at a gala.
Bree is deliciously determined–“I could smile at a goddamn party and get a spiked drink down a man who loved a cocktail”–even though anyone who’s ever read a thriller knows this surely won’t go she plans. She stuffs her fears and insecurities by disappearing into her assigned role, just as she did as an acting-obsessed teen.
I won’t spoil all the twists here, but Jackson soon reveals that the kidnapper’s #MeToo motivation at hand centers on a night decades ago in college, when drunken young men derailed a scholarship student’s future.
It’s an important issue, and one well worth exploring in fiction. But it’s hard not to want this topical thriller to both shine a light on the truth and let all its victims have their moment of triumph and revenge. We don’t get enough of the latter, and it’s a fatal flaw. I love Bree (and I also love that she clearly belongs with the kind widower at school and not her husband), but Jackson sacrifices an opportunity for real justice that would render the book far more satisfying.
Sisters, wired differently
Hepworth’s The Good Sister signals immediately that Fern and Rose are adult twin sisters with an unshakeable bond. Fern is a librarian, and an exceedingly good one. She’s set up her world so she can navigate successfully, given her never-named but clearly telegraphed sensory processing challenge. She has a strict schedule and an arsenal of coping strategies, and most of all she has omnipresent Rose there to help: “Rose always taps her bracelet against mine as a warning. Stop. It’s a good system that almost always works.”
Hepworth, author of the stellar 2019 thriller The Mother-in-Law, has said in interviews that she wanted to showcase a neurodiverse character in part because she has two wired-differently children. That’s admirable, and in many ways, this is a welcome depiction. Fern grows increasingly independent over the course of the book. Hepworth sweetly and thoughtfully writes her blossoming romance with Wally. Fern’s prowess in her job is another bright spot.
Yet The Good Sister isn’t quite the groundbreaker it wants to be. The central conceit of this story hinges on manipulation of Fern. When Hepworth begins pulling back the curtain on the truth of Fern and Rose’s childhood, it’s jarring. If this is meant to be a step forward in positive representation, why revert to the harmful storyline of a targeted disabled woman?
The more traditional aspects of both thrillers shine. It’s a shame that neither Jackson nor Hepworth nail the task of effectively weaving deeper themes into their twist-filled tales.
Mother May I (William Morrow, April 6, 2021)
The Good Sister (St. Martin’s Press, April 13, 2021)