Book Review: The Other Guest
British author Helen Cooper has followed up her twisty debut thriller, The Downstairs Neighbor (reviewed here) with another thriller about a secretive family. While The Other Guest doesn’t have the same emotional resonance as its predecessor, Cooper continues to demonstrate the tight plotting that all thriller readers appreciate.
Nine months ago, 21-year-old Amy drowned accidentally at her family’s upscale resort on Lake Garda, Italy. Now her aunt, Leah, has come to Il Mandarino to comfort her sister Charlotte and try to come to terms with the girl’s death—especially her guilt about avoiding her niece’s last call. But Charlotte, her husband Gordon and younger niece Olivia seem more concerned with the resort’s reputation than mourning Amy. Leah’s questions remain unanswered, and the family is quick to parrot the police investigation’s finding of accidental death. Going through Amy’s room, Leah finds a photo of her niece with the resort’s bartender, who left the resort after the girl died amidst rumors that they were involved. Could Nate have had something to do with Amy’s death?
In London, Joanna is reeling from a break-up with her fiancé, Luke, and the attempted suicide of a student under her care. When she meets a new bartender, Callum, at her favorite local pub, she’s quickly charmed. And when Callum is injured in a hit-and-run at work, Joanna lets him recuperate at her home. But soon his stories don’t add up, and Joanna realizes Callum is hiding something big…
Cooper has created an interesting structure in The Other Guest, with two protagonists who never meet. While Leah is the more pro-active of the two, aggressively pursuing leads about Amy’s death even when her own safety is jeopardized, Joanna is the more sympathetic. Heartbroken and vulnerable, Joanna is an easy mark for Callum, and readers will worry for her when she takes the man into her home without telling anyone she knows.
Cooper also gives us Amy’s actions on the day she died, as well as the girl’s background growing up at the resort. Gordon comes across especially poorly in these pages, more concerned about the resort’s reputation than his daughters, and treating Amy as a prisoner. She isn’t even allowed to go to college, forced instead to remain at Il Mandarino to act out a charade of a perfect family. Amy is especially appalled at Gordon’s tendency to hire attractive women to hang around the resort to make the place more appealing to wealthy powerful men. While the fingers point at Nate as being responsible for Amy’s death, Gordon is the obvious villain.
For me, this family dynamic is the biggest difference between The Downstairs Neighbor and The Other Guest. In Cooper’s debut, everyone in the book cared enormously about each other, and their lies and secrets were in order to protect their loved ones. In The Other Guest, Amy’s family seems more concerned about the running of the resort than what really happened to her. Even a last-minute revelation that puts certain actions into perspective does not lessen the impact about how Amy was treated before she died. And when the truth finally comes out, it lacks the emotional punch that most reveals deliver in thrillers. In the climax, Cooper does tie everything together more tightly than I’d first anticipated, but even so, a sense of meaninglessness pervades the ending.
There’s a saying that truth is stranger than fiction, and that’s because we require our stories to make sense, to avoid coincidence, for everything to have a reason. Reality doesn’t work that way; accidents happen, even death can be arbitrary. That may be the reason that while Cooper ties up her plot threads well, she leaves some characters still unsettled and out-of-sorts. When death is arbitrary, a true sense of closure can feel impossible.