Book Review: 'The Night Before'

Oct 31, 2019

The genre is hot – the unreliable protagonist psychological thriller. Think “Gone Girl,” “The Girl on the Train,” “The Woman in the Window.” And now on the best-seller list, “An Anonymous Girl.” Typically, this genre follows a smart and sensitive young woman who soon finds herself in danger, a sympathetic but troubled soul who unwittingly endangers others as she tries to sort out what’s real and what’s the product of her admitted neurotic fantasies. The reader is drawn into the complications, not sure what to believe, as new information, from other points of view, alters what’s known about identities and relationships. Friends grow suspect, loved ones disappoint. When done well, this kind of twisty tale drives to a fast-paced violent conclusion, as satisfying as it is inevitable. Wendy Walker’s new thriller, “The Night Before,” almost makes it.

Laura Heart, born Laura Lochner, has left a good job in New York to live with her sister Rosie in a small city in Connecticut, but not before a short opening chapter puts her in a therapist’s office, four months earlier.

Walker, who has written previous psychological thrillers, says that for this one, she was drawn to the “ticking clock” structure – alternating chapters that go back and forth, past and present, letting the reader in on what is in store for the heroine – but only so far.

“Laura’s always been Laura,” as her friends and family often say meaning that she’s strong and a shrewd judge of character, but she repeatedly, self-destructively always hooks up with the wrong men. Laura herself thinks she never got over overhearing her mother once declare that she was an “unlovable child.”  

Her pattern is to choose bad guys, married guys, guys who won’t or can’t love her. As the tale begins, she’s fled the city because she just received an unexpected text from a married man whom she had been seeing and liked, but the text bluntly cut off their relationship. But there’s also something else that drove her to her sister’s house.

Years earlier, when Laura was a teen, she was in a car with the wrong boy, about to be attacked. But suddenly, the door was flung open and the guy was bashed to death. Laura, who picked up the bloody baseball bat, couldn’t say who did it, though a homeless, mentally ill grizzly guy who lived in the woods was charged. The incident went viral, and to escape attention, Laura stopped using her family name. But now, eleven years later, someone remembers, someone knows, someone’s sent her an ominous note about vengeance. 

As the present-tense narrative unfolds in Chapter 2, Laura is getting ready for a blind date with an attractive and seemingly stable guy she met online. She borrows her sister Rosie’s car to meet him, but when she doesn’t come back the morning after “the night before” – Rosie, her husband, Joe, and Gabe, a long-time family friend, are alarmed, and spring into action. Will they be in time?

Because “The Night Before” is a thriller, you can expect red herrings, but when you begin to sense that the author is setting them up, you may feel that the device is being a bit overworked. So, too, for what the ancient Greek dramatists called deus ex machina – having gods descend in machines onstage to resolve the action that otherwise might be explained internally. Still, “The Night Before” mostly makes for compelling reading and for sure it’s a timely exploration of the plight of many smart and sophisticated women seeking love.