Her – Harriet Lane

This is another of these books which were massively hyped last year – another one described as the new you-know-what…I only got access to the digital ARC at the start of this year, however, to coincide with the book being released in paperback. I was actually quite excited about it, as it sounded intriguing…”You don’t remember her. But she remembers you…”

It’s the story of two woman, Nina and Emma, who are both about the same age – late 30s, I’d guess, although Nina appears much older, sophisticated and confident than Emma. Nina has, on the surface, an enviable life. She’s a reasonably successful artist, and is on her second marriage, to the easy-going, well-off Charles. She has one daughter, Sophie, who is about to sit her A-levels, from her first marriage. They are financially secure. The only difficulty in her life is her relationship with her long divorced parents. Her mother is still resentful, and can drink too much, resulting in bitter phone calls to her daughter. Her father, however, is a successful composer of film music, and has remarried and has another young daughter – the apple of his eye. Marriage seems to be suiting him better at this stage in his life.

Emma has just started her family, giving up a career in documentary film-making. Money is tight as she and her husband Ben have just bought a bigger house to accommodate their growing family. She has a toddler son, Christopher, and is pregnant with her second child when Nina spots her in the street, recognising her from a long time ago. She engineers a meeting, presenting herself as a Good Samaritan, returning Emma’s purse. As she anticipated, Emma doesn’t recognise her. Then she’s there again, coincidentally, to “help” Emma by finding Christopher when he goes missing in the park. But we know that, in actuality, Nina basically abducted Christopher in order to make Emma look flaky, and her, well, invaluable. From thereon in, a friendship is established, as Nina had hoped. She sees Emma is struggling with motherhood, so helps with babysitting (when she has a good nosy round their house, of course…) and even offers the family the use of her father’s villa in the South of France for a much-needed break.

However, we’re still not told what the “grudge” Nina has against Emma – we don’t find this out until near the end, and it is something pretty small (as it probably had to be, otherwise Emma would have remembered Nina.) But this slight has grown over the years, until Nina blames Emma for everything that went wrong in her early life (which doesn’t appear to be a great deal, to be fair, compared to what some people have lived through! And from the outside, it looks as though what did happen was inevitable – I’m trying to be opaque here, so that there are no spoilers for those who haven’t read it, while those that have will know what I’m talking about!) Emma, though, remains oblivious, until very near the end (despite lots of people throughout the book wondering why her and Nina are friendly, given they lead such different lives.) Then things finally click into place. But has she left it to late to save her family from Nina’s devious machinations? (And she’s very devious; in fact, she probably qualifies as a psychopath!)

This novel is a nice length, being a little shorter than some of the doorstops that are coming out now. It can be slightly repetitive, as we see each scene from one woman’s viewpoint, then the other – for example, Emma worries about the untidiness of her house; Nina comes round and notes the messiness…which isn’t really the biggest deal in the world, given that by now Emma has had her baby daughter Cecily, and as many of us know, your home’s tidiness isn’t the biggest priority when you have small children to take care of. There are some funny, perceptive moments, particularly when Emma and Ben go to stay with his parents, in whose home Christopher runs amok, as it isn’t designed for toddlers, and a new gadget his grandfather is very proud of is destroyed.

But it’s in France that the novel really finds its legs, and the description of the villa and the surrounding countryside feels spot on. Emma gets a chance to relax a little, and enjoy the unaccustomed luxury of Nina’s father’s holiday home, before Nina and Sophie arrive and their holidays overlap for a short time. And, with Emma’s guard down, Nina gets her chance to act…

There’s been quite a bit of debate over the ending, with some liking it, others hating it…I was really irritated by it when I first finished the book, and debated this with FictionFan, who writes much better reviews than me…! But actually, after a day or so’s reflection, I felt it was rather clever, and not what we expect from books. In the West, we like a nice smooth story arc, with some sort of resolution – I think that’s why people struggle with, say, Japanese literature, as things aren’t always resolved in a satisfying fashion, so it can take a bit of getting used to. Harriet Lane can write well enough, that’s for sure, and I felt she did a good job describing the disparity between the two women’s lives (she evidently knows what a “posh” lifestyle consists of, whereas I’d definitely have to guess at that!) If you’re a fan of what appears to be now called “domestic noir”, you’ve probably read it. But if you haven’t and you like these sort of family/psychological thriller books, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Her. Just don’t complain to me if the ending drives you mad!

With thanks to NetGalley and the publisher Orion Books for allowing me access to a digital ARC, in exchange for an honest review.

Have you read Her? Or do you like the sound of it? Do leave your comments below; I do love to hear from fellow book addicts!

20 thoughts on “Her – Harriet Lane

  1. I’ve been hearing the hype about this too, and have still not gotten round to reading it. But that said, I’ve got a sense of the premise of the story, and I can see how it would be intriguing. Interesting you’d mention the unsatisfying ending (or at least, the fact that matters aren’t resolved). Sometimes those kinds of endings really can be awfully frustrating, but sometimes, it can work well. I’m glad you found a lot to like in this novel.

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    • I think we’re so used to some kind of resolution – like: they’ve caught the bad guy, or the bad guy’s got away with it – that we feel cheated if we DON’T get that conclusion. I was really frustrated immediately I put it down (if it wasn’t on the Kindle, it would’ve been thrown across the room!) but with some time to reflect, I thought, well at least it was daring, so kudos for that (although I did consider the ending might have been the editor’s idea!) I think she will be an author to watch – she has another, earlier book, called Alys Always (which I may buy, but only if it’s going cheap!)

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      • I think you have a well-taken point. We really are so accustomed to some sort of resolution that it seems like missing the top step of a staircase if there ins’t one. I have heard some good things about this one and her first, so I’ll have to see – I may give it a go.

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      • You’re right – it’s as though the final piece of the jigsaw is missing! You could always do that “sample” thing on Amazon and see if you’d fancy reading more (I did this earlier for a book of crime fiction short stories, inspired by and named after songs by The Boss. It was really the first story I wanted to read, as it was by Dennis Lehane – State Trooper. Anyway, the sample gave me the whole Lehane story, plus the next one, and the start of the third one – which is a bit silly, as the Lehane one is the draw! It’s called Trouble In The Heartland, and when I saw it I thought of you! You may know of some of the other authors involved, but they weren’t familiar to me.)

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    • I must admit, I did abandon it halfway through, for a few days, then forced myself to keep reading, although if it hadn’t been an ARC I suspected it would have stayed abandoned! All the “oh my goodness, it’s so tough, two young children, I’m not coping” stuff kind of stuck in my craw – she wasn’t exactly a single parent on a housing scheme trying to get by on benefits! (I’d LOVE to have seen her cope with that!) But these sort of books aren’t written, it’s always middle-class stories about middle-class problems – which is fine, but don’t make like you’re mining coal or on the front line in a war. Having said that, at least on a scheme she wouldn’t have run into Nina (and it was all over such a little thing – that surprised me. But things do fester, I guess, and people never blame their own families – they look for others to blame.)

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    • I get the impression you like your straight crime fiction, don’t you, as in a murder to be solved? Whereas this is more mind games…It’s not “the new Gone Girl”, but it is comparable as it’s Nina messing with Emma’s head – so it depends on whether that appeals (I rather like it, tbh, but I don’t know what that says about me, ha ha!) I AM glad I persevered with it, as it really revved up in the second half of the book. Fiction Fan’s review is worth a look, for another take on it – I’ve (miraculously!) managed to put a link in that actually works!

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      • It’s more I am really fussy with psychological reads. They either work for me or they don’t. Some are too borderline chick lit, middle class or just blummin boring. Straight crime and thrillers are more my faves. Some are brilliant though…. I will give it a go though. If you say it’s ok.

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      • I avoid chick-lit stuff; it brings me out in hives. This is VERY middle class (see Marina’s comment, below!) which I think is why, when life starts going tits up for Emma (Nina’s doing, of course!) she really gets panicky as I don’t think she’d ever had ANY struggles before – really, neither of them had. Nina has to be psychopathic to do all she does, and it is quite entertaining! The writing’s pretty good – and the author clearly knows what it’s like to be well-off (I think I read somewhere she used to write for Tatler, so that figures!) Is it still on NG, perchance? I would like to know what you make of the ending….

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  2. A very fair-minded review, kudos for that! I too was slightly disappointed by this book and found it repetitive. Although I rather enjoyed the ‘privileged overwhelm’ of Emma- at some point she notes that she may have to let go of the cleaner! I too had problems with the ending – not so much because it was ambiguous, but because the ‘big reveal’ was really not quite all it was gearing up to be throughout the book. When I reviewed it I wrote:
    This book is like a bag of crisps: easy to read/eat, pleasant taste in your mouth and you can’t stop until you finish the packet.
    Cleverly written, but it didn’t stay with me for ages…

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    • Thanks, Marina! Actually, I think I compared The Girl On The Train to the literary equivalent of a bag of crisps – tasty at the time, but ultimately not very satisfying (or good for you!) And the “big reveal” was such a small thing, which I don’t think Emma was ultimately responsible for – but I think things can fester and take on exaggerated significance. Both of them were ludicrously spoilt, really – “there’s a damp patch on Christopher’s ceiling”! I thought, wait until your washing machine breaks down with two small children and you have to try and juggle your money to get a new one! And why Nina bore that grudge so strongly and viciously – it hardly ruined her life, did it?! FF was hilariously disparaging about “middle class angst” – I do enjoy her reviews when she dislikes a book! I did say to her that it ended almost as though the author was sick of the characters, and had had enough of them…very sudden!

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    • Yes, as I suppose there are people who hold grudges for 20-odd years! Although her ultimate revenge seems extreme, I think it’s meant to mirror what she perceived Emma as having done to her…it’s definitely one of the better of the psychological domestic thrillers about – and there are some really poor ones, which I haven’t reviewed as I don’t want to be mean about someone’s work. But the words, “bandwagon” and “jumping on” came to mind. I noticed Waterstones chose this as one of their Book Club selections, and they’re generally pretty good books. (I’m trying to resist the current one – The Spring Of Kasper Meier. Have you read that?) And, as I said in my review, she’s a good writer, especially on the minutiae of domestic life – anyone who’s had children will nod knowingly at those bits of it!

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  3. I actually hadn’t heard about this one, so I’m hype-free! It does sound pretty interesting, although I’m a little worried about starting a book knowing that the end might make me crazy. I think I’ll keep an eye out for this one at the library. You definitely make it sound worth checking out!

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    • Maybe the hype just hasn’t reached the US yet! It was picked for at least one in-store book club here (Waterstones), but even before that it was being talked about. Maybe you’ll find the ending totally appropriate, it just bugged me at the time. I felt like there might be pages missing from my ARC (because you never know with digital ARCs, as you know!)

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  4. I did enjoy this book mainly because you have to consider what is beneath the surface of the ‘middle-class’ lives. Yes what happened to cause the grudge sounds fairly insignificant but if someone has the mind-set to blame others then I it is entirely plausible. I read Copycat by Gillian White which has a similar theme but takes it in a different direction after this book (and that was written years ago before domestic noir became a ‘thing’) which I agree with FictionFan is better on some levels but I’m a sucker for the observational stuff that Harriet Lane does so well. An excellent review again Crimeworm!

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    • I actually bought a copy of Copycat (Gillian White was an author new to me) after reading FF’s comparison: if I recall correctly, she greatly preferred Copycat, and it was quite reasonable on the Kindle. Another one still to read…I inevitably forget what I have on my Kindle, as the books are “out of sight”, unlike physical copies (although that can be a good thing, though, sometimes!) I totally agree on Lane being good with the minutiae of everyday domesticity, though – and very funny, in places. I haven’t read her debut Alys Always, though, have you?

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      • I have read Alys Always which was why I picked Her – I didn’t think the storyline quite as sophisticated as this one but it showed great promise for a debut – and it is reasonably short which is sometimes a bonus! You should read Copycat – I love Gillian White’s books and this is the best of them all!

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