This week, following my dour review of Lee Child’s latest “thriller,” I continue in the genre with two novels by home-run hitter Lisa Gardner. The first is her brand-new Never Tell, and the other is Alone from 2005. Lisa is in top form in her latest novel but that said, one of the great things about her novels is that they don’t really age.
Never Tell gripped me tight and hard and never let go. Reading a Lisa Gardner novel – I’ve read quite a few over the years but not all of them, as you’ll see from the second review here – is always a treat because nothing in her stories is ever quite the way it seems, and what or when something does seem to be the way it is, it’s just as likely a conundrum. I think these are the hallmarks of a great mystery/suspense/thriller novel and precisely the reason we like to read them. We want them to be complex, convoluted, difficult to figure out just what’s happening, who the good guys are and whom the bad.
In Lisa’s latest, Never Tell, we learn, as in life, that everything and everyone are cast in shades of gray. The characters jump off the page (in my case, leapt out of the headphones, for I listened to the Audible version which is read exceptionally well by Kirsten Potter), as very realistic people, places and things. My imagination can see and feel everything that’s going on. If you haven’t experienced an Audible novel I highly recommend it, and Never Tell is an awfully good one to begin with.
One thing that kept me on an emotional edge in Never Tell was the fires. I abhor and fear fire more than any other force of nature (and I’m astrologically a fire sign – go figure). I’ve lived through two home fires in my life and I never want to see the flames licking about the walls, popping windows, roaring as it consumes clothing and furniture, ever again. In Never Tell, the fires lick and burn and explode with a hyper-realism that was most discomfiting to me.
One could blithely say Gardner’s novels present the theme, “when bad things happen to good people,” but that would be too facile and, in many cases, not quite true. Humans are far too complex, and in her novels they are equally complex and utterly true-to-life. That depth of portrayal and sincerity to la nature humaine is what makes her writing so satisfying. In Never Tell, Evie Carter doubts her husband. Her mother has a deep secret we long to figure out. Her dead father, a paragon of every known virtue, sounds too good to be true – and he is. The vibrant yet damaged Flora emerges as a true heroine, willing to go to great lengths to help others. So much going on, and all so fascinating, and dangerous, and convincing. Lisa Gardner never sounds a discordant note.
Gardner departs just a bit from her usual single-character introduction in Chapter 1. We meet Bobby Dodge, who at first seems like a typical Boston cop until we learn he is nothing of the sort. Halfway through this chapter we’re introduced to Catherine, who Lisa’s followers will recognize as a woman who has undergone an earlier traumatic experience that tore her life apart – and from which she’s still trying to recover. It’s undoubtedly true that we, each of us, are the sum of our experiences. Wounds to the body, the mind, the soul, never properly heal. Catherine, we learn, is no exception.
Bobby’s and Catherine’s lives intersect in a most devastating situation that shakes them both to their roots, which means they are forced to confront events in their pasts which both of them would prefer to leave there. As I read, I kept hearing the refrain from the Hall & Oates song, “Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid,” in my head, and although the song is about lovers, in its essential meaning is the warp and weft of the more complex and expansive story shared between Catherine and Bobby.
There is a passage that thematically summed up this moving, involving, deeply complex and yet narratively-driven (as in page-turning) novel for me. Bobby’s psychologist is saying to him:
“Someone you loved once left you and never looked back. Now, all these years later, you’re still waiting for people to leave, Bobby. In fact, the longer a woman stays, the more anxious it makes you. So you engineer little scenarios, little tests. The woman will either fight for you or she’ll leave you. Either one eases your anxiety. At least temporarily.”
In his 1910 novel Howard’s End, E.M. Forster wrote, “Only connect.” One can and should attribute multiple meanings to this. Each living thing, dog or human, lives to connect yet dies alone. Perhaps Bobby has died, alone, long ago from his loss. Catherine, for her part, struggles against many forces that are intent on keeping her alone. Can they, should they, connect? That is the question.
The level of insight into la nature humaine is what makes Lisa Gardner novels so special for me. An author can’t write about these matters of the characters’ psyches and hearts without extraordinary compassion and understanding. Most thriller-writers don’t even try; they stay at the comfortable and simplistic level of shoot-em-ups.
When I read about the characters’ lives in a Lisa Gardner novel, I’m compelled to examine my own life and those of people close to me. Although I haven’t had the same life-experiences as a Bobby or a Catherine, my empathy for them pours out in the recognition that they and I – all of us – have problems to solve. That’s just a fact of life. Some want to; others don’t. Some try; others don’t. Gardner’s novels are about just that.