Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
Waking up in a hospital bed with no memory of how you got there is pretty bad. Losing six weeks of your memory is a little worse. Having to face the reality that your best friend was murdered and you don’t remember how it happened is basically worst-case scenario.
This is the set up of Eileen Cook’s new suspense novel With Malice. Told through a blend of police interview transcripts, blog posts, texts, e-mails and travel guide excerpts in addition to the present narration, this book is a page-turning psychological thriller that’s hard not to finish in one sitting.
Jill Charron is pretty, smart and privileged. When she’s involved in a fatal car crash while studying abroad in Italy, her wealthy father is quick to bring her back to the United States and line up an attorney and private media relations team. As she begins her physical and emotional rehabilitation, Jill faces tough questions about the events surrounding the accident with few easy answers due to her impaired memory. As the allegations swing between being against and in support of her, Jill struggles to remember the moments leading up to the wreck in an effort to clear her name and sway public opinion.
Because the main tension and action surrounding the accident happens in flashbacks, this is an intensely character driven novel that exposes the limits of memory and capitalizes on the voice on its narrator. Jill might not always be likable or relatable, but her voice pulled me into the story and made me care about her outcome. Jill’s character is multi-faceted, with an emotional depth of a girl in flux, trying to figure herself out.
However the development between who she was before Italy, who she became during the trip and who she became after the accident (and to what extent these versions of herself remain distinct) is muddled and unclear at times, breaking the overall cohesion of her character.
Some of the second characters were developed with more successful fine-tuning. Simone, Jill’s best friend, is a classic mean girl trope with twists that make her into an unforgettable character. Evan Stanley is the classic sleazy lawyer, but with an emotional intensity that cancels out the cliché aspects of his character. Jill’s parents-her demanding father and nurturing helicopter mom-are a really dynamic pair that steal the scene when they appear on the page. Jill’s neuropsychologist Dr. Week’s is the rational voice she needs when her life goes to hell. And Jill’s rehab roommate Anna becomes the best friend that Jill realizes she never had.
Together, this wide cast of characters fills the novel with a diverse range of personalities that pull the novel together. At times, the novel is so full of different voices that it’s impossible to know who to trust or who to believe. In a suspense novel, this is undoubtedly a point of strength.
The heart of this novel is the intense bond between girl best friends, one that is also toxic and broken. The evolution of Jill and Simone’s relationship and the inherent cracks in their closeness is a fascinating part of this non-linear novel. Discovering how the tensions of social class, intelligence and popularity fracture their bond piece by piece is one of the joys of this novel, which doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of girl friendship.
The details of Jill’s recovery were fascinating, as were the logistics of the Italian investigation and her possible extradition. Cook’s novel brings the gut-sinking logistical twists and turns of international investigations down to a personal and emotional level. You won’t want to miss out on this wild ride of a suspense novel, which will leave you breathless by the final page.