“ Author: Stephanie Bond / 369 pages „
I'm quite a fan of Stephanie Bond's novels, even her Mills & Boon romance novels which have sometimes alienated readers by pushing the envelope with regard to their sexual content. It's her romantic crime novels I enjoy the most, however, as they always manage to not only provide the perfect balance between the two genres but also inject a good deal of wry and realistic humour into even the worst situations.
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The three Metcalfe sisters witnessed a murder twenty years ago but afraid of the repercussions they agree to keep silent. Following a major family crisis the sisters are all living separate lives but when they return to the family home to deal with the fall out from their parents' separation, old wounds are reopened and, even worse, it looks as though the wrong man was convicted for the long ago murder and the real murderer wants to ensure that nobody lives to tell the tale.
The title of this novel is actually that of a book that Regina, a publishing house editor, is reading from her slush pile which has been written by one of the female protagonists from a previous novel. It's quite a nice little touch or a piece of literary conceit, depending on your point of view. Personally, I think it's the former. It makes it all seem more real somehow.
Stephanie Bond has a great writing style. She writes with a deceptively light touch even though her stories frequently involve far deeper, even taboo, subjects which other writers in this genre tend to steer well clear of, and despite the intensity of some of these subjects, these never come across as too serious.
This is ostensibly a mystery novel but the true heart of the story is about sisterhood. I can't pretend to have any first-hand knowledge of having a sister but always thought it would be nice to have one, especially at times in my childhood when my annoying little brother was around. After reading about the torturous relationship between the female siblings in this story, I think maybe I've changed my mind!
Justine, Regina and Mica may not have had the best of childhoods having been blessed with parents who were more concerned with their on-again-off-again relationship but the sisters had been a self-contained unit until circumstances blew that apart. But before that, and detailed in the prologue, the girls witnessed the murder of their aunt. Rather than report it and thus admit to having been where they were forbidden to go, the girls agree to keep quiet, especially as they hope not to alert the murderer to the fact that there had been witnesses. Twenty years on and several family dramas later we catch up with the sisters. Justine, the husband-stealing, ball-breaking executive; Mica, the model, who stole Justine's fiancé on the eve of their wedding ; and Regina, the much put upon and frequently overlooked middle child and the sensible one. It's when Regina gets called home to deal with her parents' latest marital crisis that things begin to hot up.
The spectre of that long ago murder rears its ugly head again when, on the eve of her return to the family home Regina comes across a paper knife offered for sale on an internet auction site and it's identical to one which was stolen from her parents antique shop and used to kill her aunt. During the police investigation, the weapon wasn't found but having witnessed the murder Regina knew that it was the murder weapon. She sends a mail to the seller asking for details of the knife's history as she's curious that one should appear for sale just at the time that the man convicted for her aunt's murder is appealing against his sentence.
Circumstances in the sisters' lives cause all three to end up back in their home town of Monroeville, North Carolina, which brings them all into great danger as someone seems to be taking pot shots at them and Regina is beginning to suspect that the man imprisoned for their aunt's murder may in fact be innocent and the real killer is trying to silence them once and for all.
Although the story is told in the third person so we get access to all the sister's thought processes, it's mainly told from Regina's perspective and it's impossible not to sympathise with her. She's that frequently overlooked middle child and all her life she's been the family peacemaker. She's a thirty-something every woman who's discovered that life isn't the great adventure she'd anticipated in her twenties but instead is vaguely disappointing.
The first third of the book deals with setting the scene and is entertaining enough in itself but once all the dramatis personae are assembled the story ramps up another notch and I really found it difficult to put the book down.
The story touches on several fairly emotive modern issues: STIs, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and divorce, so this is a light romantic novel which still manages to pack a bit of a punch. It isn't quite gritty realism but at the same time these are all subjects which will resonate with many readers. Of course, being a romantic novel we do get the odd Hallmark moment; very American and a bit saccharine.
Each chapter has a tip to help women survive any relationship, taken from the self-help book that Regina has picked from the slush pile. These range from such wise words as 'Don't expect copulation and conversation at the same time' to the more prosaic 'If the relationship isn't working, kill it quickly'.
Though this is marketed as romantic fiction it's actually far more complex than that and all the better for it and to my mind this is less romantic fiction and more women's fiction simply because it deals with issues which affect the modern woman and the romance is anything but centre stage.
I wouldn't say this novel is perfect as there are certain elements which are fairly predictable, most notably the romances, and the mystery is pretty easy to solve. However, the story is fast paced with some great dialogue well laced with humour and has three quirky and very likeable, if slightly emotionally damaged female protagonists.
This is a richly layered story with an engaging ensemble of characters. It's light enough to be considered escapist whilst still dealing with some fairly deep issues. In my opinion, it's a darn good read.