To judge from much contemporary fiction and successful film adaptations, The Psychological Thriller is hot. Typically featuring dark twisty plots and mysterious, pathological characters, many of these nerve-wracking novels turn on the menacing machinations of vengeful women.
Fascinating as they are clever and beautiful. With their new bestselling book, “An Anonymous Girl,” co-authors Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen hitch on to this bandwagon to suspenseful effect. Their compelling narrative is, as they say, a can’t-put-it-down tale. It pits young working woman Jessica Farris against Dr. Lydia Shields, an Upper East Side psychiatrist who has advertised for participants for a study she’s doing on ethics and morality.
Jessica’s job involves doing make up for well-off clients. She knows her stuff, is well intentioned and affable, but she hardly earns enough to get by. Her clients are often selfish and demanding. But Jess needs the money to help out her family. One day she overhears one of her young clients talk about a psychological study she signed up to do. But it’s obvious that the client is not interested. Advantage Jessica. She tricks her way into the study saying she’s the client and becomes Subject 52. But once she’s alone in the study’s bare room, she senses she’s being observed. She also notes the oddity of the questions. She’s asked to describe, truthfully, with examples from her own life, how she feels about lying, cheating, guilt, passion, retribution. Still, the money’s good, and though she’s increasingly uneasy, she goes along.
The questions become more intrusive and intense, however, and start coming with unusual demands. She’s told to go to various places and what to wear. The purpose, she’s told, is to flirt with a strange man. And to report his response to Dr. Shields by email. Jess is also told to go to strange apartments to check out the women who live there. By this point, in too deep to withdraw, having betrayed a lot about herself, and dependent on money for her family that Dr. Shields has already begun to provide, Jess discovers that Dr. Shield’s questions are anything but random, and that she’s being manipulated by a master.
It turns out that Dr. Shields is obsessed with Dr. Thomas Cooper, her estranged husband, also a psychiatrist, who, she believes, has betrayed her. Is he a serial adulterer? Will Subject 52 be able to confirm by way of tempting him herself? What’s ethical? Fearful, but also curious, Jess starts snooping, but, as she discovers, Dr. Shields is always one step ahead. It seems there was a Subject 5 who had been involved in the psychological study early on, but she died. A suicide it was said. . .Hmmmm.
The book’s intricate plot is enhanced by a neat stylistic device. The authors give both Jess and Dr. Shields first-person narration. As some chapters open, it’s not immediately clear who is talking. And indeed, their lives intertwine, as each muses on the growing complexity of the cat and mouse game, and on the nature of love, trust and secrecy. Though Jess manages to attract a nice-guy she can’t talk to him. She’s sworn to confidentiality by Dr. Shields. But Jess is also aware that many of her own actions have already crossed an ethical line. She’s smart, but no match for the threatening ice-maiden psychiatrist, a brilliant strategist who knows how to weave a silken spider web.
Satisfying endings are difficult to pull off, but “An Anonymous Girl” keeps the anxiety level high as it drives toward its surprising resolution.