The Girl Before, by J.P. Delaney / **** ½

28016509Ever since the release of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (a book I really love, for what it’s worth), publishers have all been trying to cash in on that book’s massive popularity, releasing twisty, nasty little thrillers with unreliable narrators, massive narrative shocks, morally complex (at best) characters, and much more. Maybe the most successful was the middling Girl on the Train, which boasted a great premise and narrator, but squandered it with a weak, overwrought plotline.

Now comes The Girl Before, which has already been picked up as a movie project for Ron Howard, and which definitely feels of a piece with Flynn’s book. It’s the story of two women, Emma and Jane, each of whom move into a most unusual house in London. It’s not just the stark minimalism of the house, though; it’s the complicated application process, the 200+ rules inhabitants have to live by, and the demanding, eccentric architect who still oversees the house’s high-tech systems. These two stories, though, take place two years apart, with author J.P. Delaney alternating between the two women’s stories with each chapter. And before long, we know that Emma’s story will end in her death, under what could charitably be called suspicious circumstances.

Delaney has a lot of plates spinning here, but perhaps the most fascinating is the way he (technically, “J.P. Delaney” is a pseudonym; many believe that the author Tony Strong is the writer behind the book) lets the two stories mimic and comment on each other. This is a book about patterns, about the way that people find themselves following in bad habits and shameful footsteps, and unable to break out of those cycles. But it’s also about the way that people can reveal themselves through those cycles, and in watching how the two women’s lives play out in parallel tracks, it’s not hard to start asking questions about what we can learn about the one man they have in common: Edward, the architect who designed the house.

Much of what makes The Girl Before work is the engaging, rich characterization of Emma and Jane. For all that these two women have in common – both have undergone a recent trauma; both are trying to rebuild; both are strong, outspoken women – there’s little confusing the two, which gives us two strong, interesting women to focus on and engage with. More than that, by letting the women narrate their chapters, we get to learn more about them than we ever could through omnipotent narrators – and, more than that, Delaney can play some games with his audience.

Because, make no mistake, this is definitely a twisty read. No, it doesn’t quite live up to the gleefully manipulative Gone Girl, but it works far better than The Girl on the Train, tossing out a slew of reveals that generally feel as though the book is playing fair but keeping you guessing. And while the major reveal of what happened to Emma isn’t perfect, it works on the whole, and feels, again, like the book is generally playing fair without going too silly or far-fetched.

Best of all, though, it’s a fast-paced and incredibly engaging read, one that’s hard to put down. I ended up blasting through it in just a few hours, and every time I’d plan on stopping, something new would come along and keep me hooked right in. And between the strong characterization, the clever two-lane plotting, and the ever twisting reveals, I had a blast reading it. It’s a great, twisty, fun little read, and done with enough writerly craft that you’ll find yourself drawn along and enjoying it without a care in the world. So read it before the movie comes along, and enjoy being ahead of the curve.


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