The Good Life, by Sarah K. Stephens
This is a classic ‘woman at risk’ crime novel with a great twist at the end. It combines the woman-at-risk sub-genre with a newer trend in crime fiction – the portrayal of protagonists endangered not only by evil adversaries but by having been pushed by circumstance to the farther reaches of civilisation. In this respect it reminds me of Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days.
Kate, the heroine, is a woman at war with herself, plagued by self-dislike. It has been triggered partly from the disappearance of her toddler son a few years before the novel begins, forcing her to confront the fact that she was a ‘bad mother’, and partly from much further back in her life, when the child she was babysitting as a teenager died. The boy choked on fruit Kate had assembled to make a smoothie while he was in her care.
Calvin, Kate’s husband, takes her to an expensive – but somewhat tawdry – holiday resort in Costa Rica, for a much-needed break and to try to rekindle romance in their strained marriage. On the flight there they meet an over-friendly couple, Ashby and Bill, who it turns out are staying at the same resort. Kate throws herself enthusiastically into cultivating this new friendship. Calvin is not so sure. Then, after a night of heavy drinking, the nightmare begins. Rebecca, Kate’s sister, comes to her aid, but very soon she, too, becomes a casualty.
The novel explores the themes of redemption and self-respect and how they are connected. It shows how wrong choices can be made, relationships damaged – and, sometimes, lives curtailed – by the reckless behaviour of people who believe they don’t matter. It looks at both selfishness and selflessness from surprising new angles.
I found Rebecca by far the most interesting character in the novel, even though there is much more space devoted to Kate. Rebecca remains enigmatic until the end. The female characters in general are drawn in more detail than the male characters. Ashby Garcia, who turns into Kate’s nemesis, fascinates from the start with her hard glamour. This is the passage which set Kate on her nightmare journey:
The woman had the aisle seat, just like Kate, and so Kate shoved her hand out across the space, ignoring the soft bustle of the other passengers surrounding them. “I’m Kate Whitaker.” Their hand intertwined into a firm handshake. Kate felt a pinch as wedding rings dug into her hands. A stack of Bulgari chokers decorated the woman’s long neck.
“Ashby Garcia.” She flipped her hair over her right shoulder, one shiny curtain of good grooming. “This is my husband, William.”
The passage is understated, but you can just feel that things won’t end well, can’t you?
If you have yet to select books for holiday reading this summer, I can’t recommend The Good Life too highly.