Gone Girl had neon orange lettering on matt black with a demented scribble design. Before We Met has neon pink lettering on matt black with an exploding flower. Its tagline - “The most dangerous lies are those closest to home” – could very well have been the tagline for Gone Girl.
Publishers love a formula, and in the last three years domestic thrillers in the Did I Marry an Axe Murderer? mode have been a lucrative hit. It makes sense. If the search for Mr Right has spawned thousands of romances, then what happens if Mr Right turns out to be Mr Psychopathically Wrong ought to be fertile ground for thousands of thrillers. Before We Met follows Gillian Flynn’s superbly tricksy Gone Girl and S J Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep – both international bestsellers with Hollywood adaptations in the pipeline – in asking the worrisome question, how well does any wife really know her husband?
Like its predecessors, Before We Met is told from the point of view of a paranoid her indoors. This one is Hannah, a thirtysomething British advertising executive who lives in New York and, like an advertising exec’s case study of an upwardly mobile thirtysomething, likes Barolo wine, Alan Hollinghurst novels and running (or at least she pretends to like the latter). She does not like serious relationships and avoids commitment for fear of ending up like her “moribund” mother, a divorcee who lives alone in Malvern, having driven her husband away with jealousy.
One weekend Hannah’s friends introduce her to Mark, a handsome fellow Brit who has his own software company. After some initial frostiness on Hannah’s part they hit it off. In a matter of months she has quit her job to marry him and make a new, expensive home in London. He, meanwhile, continues to fly between the two cities on business. When he doesn’t arrive on his scheduled flight from JFK one Friday, she uncovers a skein of lies, starting with his whereabouts and spooling down through his finances, secretive phone calls to another woman and, finally, a dark secret from the past.
The tension builds revelation by revelation and barely loosens its grip throughout - the kind of thriller to keep you turning pages into the small hours and then miss your stop on your morning commute. Even in Hannah’s rosy reminiscences of their early romance, there are sinister signs – the door that swings shut “like a jaw” at the beach house where they first meet, the way that Mark just happens to show up at the bookshop where Hannah has gone to bunk off their first date, her brother’s odd reaction to their engagement. Then again, perhaps Hannah is being overly suspicious – it is in her genes, after all.
Once the central secret is revealed, the quiet tension of the first half dissipates into a more action-packed and rather predictable run of events. Whitehouse has a feel for a compelling plot but she has a tendency to over-write around the edges. Houses are described down to the very last flagstone of Welsh slate or lace-edged antimacassar; outfits are described with the pedantic detail of a fashion blogger; one page has two similes for the noise of a vacuum cleaner (it billows out “like a dust cloud”, then is sucked back in “like a bubblegum bubble”). And yet elsewhere the narrative lacks fleshing out. For all the endless time we spend inside Hannah’s head, she becomes neither more familiar nor more likeable over the course of 300 pages.
Readers are now savvy to tales where a spouse is not as angelic as he or she seems, where a fiendishly spun tissue of lies and charm eventually gives way to a bloody showdown. They are fast becoming the Midsomer Murders of the holiday reading market, only with a trendy urban setting and more booze, sex and aspirational consumer goods. Still, with its glamorous protagonists and transatlantic appeal, Whitehouse’s novel has film script written all over it. Someone should give Claire Danes a call, pronto: she would make an excellent Hannah.