August 20, 2011
FAITHFUL PLACE: A NOVEL
by Tana French
Review by J.S. Colley
I’m always in the mood for a good thriller/mystery.
In my quest for some escapism, I perused Amazon Kindle Store and discovered one of their July 2010’s Best Book of the Month picks was a thriller by Tana French titled Faithful Place: A Novel. Perfect. I’d never heard of this author but if Amazon gave the novel an award then what could go wrong?
Plenty, it seems.
According to the properties of entropy (my new favorite word since watching Brian Cox in Wonders of the Universe the other day) it was inevitable ¬– things fall apart.
In this case, they did so very quickly. I wonder if the people at Amazon, like many of us, are lazy. Perhaps they just read the first chapter. Or even three chapters. Or maybe they just went on assumptions. Tara French already had some best-selling novels under her belt. What could go wrong?
The first thing that went wrong was my inability to suspend my disbelief ― a fatal mind-set in the business of storytelling.
The story really begins twenty years ago, when Frank Mackey and his girlfriend, Rosie Daly, decide to escape the drudgery that is Faithful Place. He waits for her on the corner but she never shows up. He goes looking for her at their favorite meeting place – an abandoned house in their neighborhood where all the kids hang out in order to engage in various forms of rebellion. There he happens to find half of a ‘farewell’ note (it was torn) on the floor and thinks it is meant for him. He’s devastated but decides to stick with the plan, even if Rosie isn’t going with him.
Twenty years later, Rosie’s suitcase is found stuffed behind a fireplace in the abandoned house. Frank hasn’t been back home since he left that day but he gets a phone call from the one sister he still talks to and a police inquiry begins.
Here is the first point where I have trouble suspending my disbelief. The entire book is based on the assumption that, from the very beginning, no one suspects that Frank might have killed her and then run away. In today’s world, the boyfriend/husband is always the first suspect – often the only suspect. The author tries her best to work around this – the contents of the torn note being one attempt – but I find this very hard to believe. Only during the investigation did this suspicion even surface, yet it was only given a cursory look, as if it were a ridiculous notion.
Yet I pretend to suspend my disbelief and continued to read.
By running away, Rosie hoped to find a better and more exciting life but Frank mostly wanted to escape the embarrassment that was his family. Now he must return home, which is made even more difficult because his family and the entire neighborhood despise the police and Frank is now a detective.
If you thought the Irish family in Angela’s Ashes was dysfunctional, this one makes them look like the Cleavers. It has the clichéd drunk father – who, of course, is the cause of all their dysfunction. But, unlike Angela’s Ashes, the mother isn’t just weak and pathetic; she’s a downright shrew. To my own horror, I wondered a few times why someone didn’t punch her lights out. That these grown people would take such abuse from this woman was beyond me.
Even though Frank is a detective, he never suspects foul play in the somewhat mysterious disappearance of his own girlfriend. Over the years he uses his resources to search for her, but all traces of Rosie seem to have vanished the night they were supposed to meet. Wouldn’t that make the very clever detective even a little curious? That’s another example of the author conveniently overlooking human nature to serve the plot.
It is easy to figure out whodunit very early in the story. In fact it is so obvious, I hoped there would be a spectacular twist at the end and the killer would turn out to be someone else. But I was wrong. Of course, this could have been intentional – make it so obvious no one would believe it could possibly be that easy. The twist was that there was no twist. What is more disappointing is that there were other suspects who would have been far more interesting and less banal choices.
And here I must take time to stick up for the killer. In the end, “the killer” was proven to be one of the more principled and selfless characters in the book, even though the author tries to portray “the killer” (trying not to give the sex away here, don’t want any spoilers) as mean-spirited and an all-around bad person. Even though anyone is capable of murder and the author might have thought this was an example of how good people can do bad things, I still think the choice was a very poor one. The author had the same, if not more, opportunity to reveal some complexities about the true nature of human beings and add more depth to the novel by using one of the other characters. Perhaps the author thought her choice was the more emotional one but it felt forced – the purpose appeared mainly as a catalyst for manipulating the protagonist into the position of having to make a difficult decision concerning his family. Yet this could easily have been accomplished if the killer had been someone else – and perhaps even more emotional.
In the years between Rosie’s disappearance and the discovery of her suitcase, Frank remarried. He recently divorced, due, in part, from issues regarding his unresolved relationship with Rosie.
Frank has kept his new family away from his old, but somehow his ex-wife and the only sister he ever talks to arrange for his daughter, Olivia, to meet with her paternal grandparents and extended family on several occasions. (Here I could talk about how hypocritical the protagonist appears – all the while bashing consumerism, yet he marries a “rich” girl and is embarrassed by his poor background.) I find it hard to believe a young girl could keep something like that a secret from her father. Not to give anything away, but Olivia plays a role in solving the crime. Some aspects of her role seem almost laughable in the unlikelihood of it all.
There is also a scene where Frank throws himself into a river and almost drowns that was equally contrived and not in keeping with his character – a cardinal sin for an author.
I was overall disappointed in this book. I would expect more from an award-winning novel – even though the award is such a minor one. Tana French can write, for sure, but there were so many things that didn’t make sense to me – that I found to be improbable, if not downright implausible – that I just couldn’t get past. Fiction is supposed to make you believe in something that isn’t real. If the reader isn’t able to suspend his/her disbelief, then I think the author has failed. And isn’t a book not only about the writing but also about the plot? You can only talk about the excellence of one over the other if they both are done well.