Latest review: Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult

By Ekta R. Garg

December 1, 2021

Genre: Women’s fiction

Release date: November 30, 2021

Rated: Bordering on Bookmarking it / 3.5 stars

A woman goes on vacation at the start of the pandemic and gets stranded. Away from her loved ones and her home, she struggles with whether her life is really on track and realizes she may want to chart a new course for herself. Jodi Picoult returns with her trademark attention to detail in a book that’s too self-aware with Wish You Were Here.

At 29, Diana O’Toole is on course to hit all of the milestones she’s set for herself: married by 30, kids by 35, a home in the New York City suburbs, and a promotion at Sotheby’s. She’s just an associate specialist at the famous auction house, but Diana is about to close one of the most coveted art deals in years. Even if her boss hates that Diana, a junior member of the company, initiated the deal, there’s no way she’ll be able to deny Diana the new position once the auction goes through.

Her boyfriend, Finn, is a surgical resident in New York. They’ve talked off and on about marriage, and now Diana knows Finn is going to pop the question. She found the ring and thinks he’ll do it on their upcoming vacation to the Galapagos. They’ve been saving for ages for this trip, a first in what they both hope will be many international vacations to see the world.

Days before they’re supposed to leave, though, in early March of 2020, the hospital asks Finn to stay home. A new virus is starting to creep across the city, and even though everyone on the news says it’s nothing the hospital staff suspects otherwise. Diana waffles. She really wants to see the Galapagos; after poring over guidebooks and websites for weeks, she feels like she’s already there. But she doesn’t want to go alone.

Finn tells her to go anyway, and after some reluctance she does. The minute she lands, though, Diana knows she’s made a mistake. Everyone is leaving the island, and her hotel is shuttered. No restaurants are open, and no one speaks English. Plus her luggage is lost. She’s thousands of miles from home with nothing to eat, nothing to wear, and nowhere to stay.

An elderly woman takes pity on Diana and lets her move into an empty apartment. With minimal cell service, Diana can’t even talk to Finn. When she manages to catch a signal, emails from him pour into her inbox. The virus isn’t just a virus, he says. It’s a disaster.

Diana is beside herself with worry, but she’s also restless. The island is under lockdown, but she meets a teen with secrets. As their friendship develops and Diana gets to know others on the island, she begins to question whether her life plan really made so much sense after all. She’s eager to talk it all over with Finn, but it doesn’t look like she’s leaving any time soon and she starts to think maybe the virus is a sign that she needs to hit the pause button on everything she’s ever wanted.

Author Jodi Picoult takes care in developing her characters and storyline in every book she writes, and once again her depth of research is unparalleled. Given that the pandemic is ongoing, however, some readers may be wary of reading this book because of crisis fatigue. Also, the influx of information released between the start of the pandemic and this book’s release nearly two years later is vast, which makes it difficult to suspend disbelief to accept Diana and Finn’s naivete.

Despite Picoult’s clear dedication to the story, the book comes off as too self-aware. Within a day of arriving at the island, Diana talks about “social distancing” with an ease that just didn’t exist in March 2020. In later scenes, she runs across islanders wearing masks without batting an eye or wondering about the benefits. Time and again, the lack of any connection to the outside world is mentioned—the plot depends on it in many places—yet Diana’s acceptance of the pandemic can only belong to a well-informed person.

The second half of the book, though, is where Picoult’s work shines and the story comes into its own. A fantastic plot twist brings Diana’s entire life into question in only the way Picoult can do so. There’s always something to learn from a Jodi Picoult novel. This one is no exception. I recommend Wish You Were Here Borders on Bookmarking it.

Brand new review: The Perfect Family by Robyn Harding

By Ekta R. Garg

November 17, 2021

Genre: Psychological thriller

Release date: August 10, 2021

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A family suffers through a series of attacks of vandalism on their home and struggles to understand who would want to target them. As the individual members of the family deal with their secrets, they each also harbor guilt that they’re the reason why people want to hurt them. Author Robyn Harding is back with characters who spend more time inside their heads and less time actually solving a problem in her newest novel The Perfect Family.

On the surface it seems like Thomas and Viv Adler have it all. With a nice house in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, and desirable jobs, Thomas and Viv should be flying high. Their older son, Eli, is a soccer star and in college at a prestigious school; their daughter, Tarryn, is close to finishing high school. This close to being empty nesters, in theory they should be making lists of things to do and places to go once Tarryn is out of the house.

Except Eli comes home from school and announces that he’s dropping out. Tarryn’s mood seems to be stuck on “sulky teenager,” and nothing Thomas and Viv do can shake her out of it. And now someone has egged their house, and it’s freaking Thomas out.

As a high-earning real estate agent, Thomas knows he has to keep up appearances. Egg on the front door is not good for his image. If it was just the egg, he could clean it off and move on with his day. But the perpetrators come back, and the attacks start to escalate.

Smoke bombs go off; poop gets smeared on their front doorknob. When the tires of Thomas’s expensive car get slashed, everyone in the family knows things have gotten really bad. And all of them feel responsible.

Viv has been building her interior design business one client at a time, but she has a secret habit that makes her fearful that the next client could be her last. Eli knows he should talk to someone about the awful incident at college, but he doesn’t know how to do that without implicating himself or his teammates and they’ve made it crystal clear what will happen to him if he talks. Tarryn’s bad mood comes from her late-night activities, which her parents don’t know about at all. She doesn’t care about them or Eli anyway; the people she talks to at night are the ones who really get her.

Thomas, too, has a secret of his own, something that started simply as humiliating and has now become a situation that could destroy his career and his family. Every time he thinks about telling Viv, it doesn’t seem like the right time. It’s clear, though, that the group targeting the house isn’t going to let up any time soon, leaving all of the Adlers wondering whether it really is worth it to hold onto their secrets just to be the “perfect family.”

Author Robyn Harding brings a cast of characters who spend a great deal of time thinking about what they’ve done wrong and how guilty they feel about it. While some time is also spent on how their individual secrets affect everyone else in the household, for the most part the individual members of the Adler family really don’t talk to one another. Not of anything substantial, at least. Readers may find it frustrating waiting for the Adlers to come around to this simple way of clearing up misconceptions and keeping trouble and potential danger at bay.

Harding portrays the police in an uneven light. When the Adlers complain, officers dismiss their claims or try to convince them that nothing is that serious. When other characters bring up issues, however, the police seem to take them seriously. Readers might wonder why the Adlers are experiencing this kind of dismissal from law enforcement.

Where Harding excels is in the inner monologues of her characters. She gives all four of the Adlers time and space on the page to express their concerns, share their innermost thoughts, and lash out at the world. The psychological conflicts between Thomas and Viv and their children are nuanced, making parts of the book a compelling read.

Some of the plot elements don’t seem quite plausible, and the end might leave more discerning readers rolling their eyes. Those who don’t mind a fast thriller that skates on the surface of believability will like this one. Otherwise I recommend readers Borrow The Perfect Family.

Newest review: The Stowaway by James S. Murray and Darren Wearmouth

By Ekta R. Garg

November 10, 2021

Genre: Thriller

Release date: September 21, 2021

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

A former juror in a murder trial finds herself stalked by the murderer after he’s set free. She realizes his motives are personal and races the clock to save others, including those closest to her. Co-writers James S. Murray and Darren Wearmouth kick off a new series with surface-level thrills that don’t get full explanations in their newest book The Stowaway.

Maria Fontana is exhausted and ready for a break. After sitting as a juror in one of the most high-profile murder cases in recent history, she thought she would go back to her life and resume her work as the head of the psychology department at Columbia University in New York. Ever since the end of the trial, though, nothing has been normal.

She’s plagued by nightmares of the grisly evidence she had to view for the case, for one thing. The killer, Wyatt Butler, murdered and dismembered children, leaving bizarre calling cards at each crime scene as clues for who he would target next. As a mother herself, Maria shudders when she thinks about the depravity of Butler’s acts.

Also, despite being sequestered with the rest of the jury during the trial, someone leaked their identities. What’s worse, the jury wasn’t unanimous in its vote and ended up acquitting Butler. The victims’ parents have targeted jury members ever since, and Maria’s finding it a challenge just to function in her day-to-day life.

News gets out that Maria stood as the lone vote against convicting Butler, and her life becomes even more of a storm. The university lets her take a sabbatical, and her fiancé suggests a long vacation. Maria agrees for the sake of her twins, Chloe and Christopher, and the four of them head onto a cruise to get away from it all, literally.

Within days of embarking on their vacation, though, disturbing events on the ship bring Maria right back to the days of the trial. Someone is murdering again, this time targeting those on board, and the method of the killings mirrors Butler’s style. Terrified but determined to get some semblance of her life back, Maria teams up with the head of the ship’s security to find the killer. She has an inkling that Butler has followed her, although she doesn’t know why, but she does know that if she doesn’t find him fast, her own kids could be his next victims.

Authors James S. Murray and Darren Wearmouth offer readers a fast read, made all the faster by keeping the story mostly on the surface. No deep motivations are provided for Butler’s behavior and fetishes, and many of the action scenes on the ship might make readers wince for how much they feel like a cheesy movie. They also stretch a reader’s suspension of disbelief to the limits.

Maria, too, doesn’t always come across as likeable. At times she’s controlling, and, again, Murray and Wearmouth don’t offer any back story as to why she is that way. Also, while her concern for her children feels real, there isn’t enough interaction shown between her and the kids. Maria goes through a difficult time after the trial, but no mention is made of how that affected Chloe and Christopher. They feel like stand-ins for a cause, something to give Maria reason to hunt down the killer on board the cruise ship. Often the story feels like it’s waiting for its actors to commence their scenes instead of being lived in and grounded in real life.

Nevertheless, the thriller writing duo definitely delivers on the promise of a fast ride with unexpected twists and turns. Red herrings abound, and Butler is creepy enough to satisfy the requirements of any antagonist. Those looking for a quick read in the genre will definitely want to pick this one up. Otherwise, I recommend readers Borrow The Stowaway.