Emma in the Night is one of those thrillers that insist on being read right now. There’s no pacing this book with another, no setting it aside to get back to that nonfiction you might be reading along with your lighter reading. Wendy Walker knows how to pose the questions that make for a suspenseful story, though for me, it was more about comeuppance than revelation.
Three years ago, two teenage sisters disappeared. Emma was a high school senior and Cass her younger sister. Now Cass is back home with a story of being held on a remote island by a couple who were at first kindly, then crazed after Emma had a baby they claimed for their own. Cass is now home with her mother, stepfather, and the rest of her family, except for Emma whose rescue depends on how well she can tell the details of their captivity and her escape, mining for clues to where she is.
Abby, the FBI’s forensic psychologist, investigated their disappearance three years ago and reached the disturbing conclusion their mother was involved in what happened. But Cass has come how with this story of being held by a couple who had first offered to help them, then stole Emma’s child and kept them prisoner. This absolves the mother and does not make sense. She wonders if Cass is telling the entire story.
Wendy Walker succeeds in writing a compelling suspense novel that drives the reader forward, looking for resolution. However, the overall effect is disappointing. We are told too much. From the epigraph telling the myth of Narcissus throughout Abby’s many thoughts and conversations about narcissism to Cass’ narrative about her mother and sister, it was just too much. It felt like we were being beat about the head with narcissistic personality disorder and its symptoms. Given all of America is watching the Narcissist-in-chief act out the symptoms every day, we are all too familiar with the syndrome to need so much detail.
Political horror stories aside, the choice of first person narrative for Cass gave us too much information, too much telling, not showing. It was clear pretty soon that there was so much more to the story, that she was lying. So, the story was less about finding Emma than finding Mrs. Martin’s comeuppance. Abby’s narrative, though third person, carried the expository weight of educating readers about narcissism. It felt bogged down by explanatory details that were overly clinical. Still, I wanted to see Mrs. Martin’s comeuppance, just as I want to see the president’s. There’s something so malevolent about narcissists that seeing them crack is satisfying. It’s more than schadenfreude. it feels like justice.
Emma in the Night is suspenseful. I would like it better if so much of what really happened were not telegraphed by Emma and Abby. I would like it better if the suspense built slowly, giving up a chance to suspect before we know. We know who the “bad guys” are far too soon, with no niggling doubts leading to suspicion to certainty. A third person Cass narrative could have made for less certainty, given us a chance to wonder what was reliable and unreliable, but then we would not get the play-by-play that explains the entire cycle of events. I just don’t know if that is necessary or if it could have been accomplished with a final truth-telling interview with Abby, allowing us to doubt and speculate longer.
Of course, all the knowledge we get from Cass makes her an imperfect victim and her agency in so much of what happens is a critical element of the story. I think though, we could still achieve that complex, imperfect victim who seeks agency in her life without revealing so much so quickly and with a third person narrative. After all, the interviews with the police and FBI would still be first person.
Emma in the Night will be released on August 8th. I received an ARC from the publisher through Shelf Awareness.