The stars of “The Girl Before” are an architect, two women and a high-tech house so sadistic that it practically spanks them.
The author, the pseudonymous JP Delaney, has concocted a thriller that jumps between the stories of Emma, who once lived in the house, and Jane, who lives there now.
The common link: rich, handsome, kinky Edward Monkford, who is 50 shades of pervy but still charms both women. He built the house, One Folgate Street in North London. It resembles a giant paperweight and is rented only to women who pass Edward’s creepily stringent requirements. Even after they move in, the grilling continues.
The place is minimalist and modern. It has no light switches and allows for no wastebaskets. No clutter, including books, is allowed on the premises, nor are curtains, since the photosensitive windows anticipate the weather. The house also spies on residents’ internet searches and gives them a choice of moods to set, like Productive, Peaceful or Playful. Panicky is not an option, though it ought to be. The house is pale, pale, pale and still manages to have a Gothic vibe, perhaps because of the body count that comes to be associated with its history.
“The Girl Before” generates a fast pace, with frequent cuts between chapters labeled “Then: Emma” and “Now: Jane.” And it milks suspense from matching scenes in which Emma and Jane do exactly the same things with Edward, who consciously sets up these parallels. That’s the good news. The downside is the author’s clumsy trickery. No spoilers here, but the novel’s denouement is improbable enough to have flown in from outer space.
We find out early that both Emma and Jane are recovering from traumas. That may be part of why they meet Edward’s requirements; their physical resemblance is also a big reason. Emma was recently raped by home intruders, so she likes the idea of living in a place that looks like a bunker. Jane has given birth to a stillborn baby and wants to shake up her life and live somewhere new. Jane is the franker of the two. “I would sleep with this man” is her first thought when she meets Edward. Good news, Jane: He’s got the same thing in mind, just as he did with Emma.
For all the similarities in their dealings with Edward, Emma and Jane turn out to be very different. This is the smartest part of “The Girl Before,” even if it uses the hackneyed trick of putting at least one unreliable narrator into any book with “Girl” in its title. The author, clearly writing with commercial success in mind, has used as many other familiar genre ploys as the book can hold, to the point at which it has everything but a dead cat. Oh, wait. There’s a dead cat, too.
The book is also stocked with potentially menacing secondary characters. There is Emma’s boyfriend, who didn’t keep her from being attacked; Emma’s psychiatrist, who wasn’t much good at helping her recover; Jane’s doctor, whom she hasn’t forgiven for her baby’s death; and a ghoulish guy who delivers flowers to the house for reasons initially unknown. Each is necessary, but none can distract attention from Edward.
Edward is rich in ways that allow the book to indulge in both shelter and merchandise porn. He is such a control freak that he could have killed those unwelcome flowers with an icy stare. “We need to be more fastidious about putting away toiletries,” he tells Jane, who promised to be tidier than Marie Kondo when she applied to be a tenant. “This morning, for example, I noticed you left your shampoo out.” As for larger-scale issues, Edward is the greatest perfectionist in the world of architecture this side of “The Fountainhead.”
The book has more trouble bringing its women to life. We know about their past problems, their secrets and their reactions to Edward. But they never emerge as strong characters. Early in the book, we learn that Emma is the one who died and that Jane will be the one who tries to figure out what happened. Emma has a boyfriend named Simon. Jane’s baby was fathered by a man she knew only casually through work. But the women remain somehow faceless, even though they share every thought with us. And nothing about the book suggests that if it concentrated on only one heroine, she’d be drawn any better.
Delaney intersperses ethics questions on stand-alone pages throughout the book. A fairly tame sample: “You have a choice between saving Michelangelo’s statue of David or a starving street child. Which do you choose?” The unnerving ghoulishness of these questions hovers over the book, and the single most ingenious touch is that we’re not provided either woman’s answers.
The sophisticated house in Delaney’s novel makes Jane think, “I feel like a character in a movie.” Well, she will be, with Ron Howard directing. No doubt the film will be less mechanical and more atmospheric than the book.
“The Girl Before” by JP Delaney, 336 pages, Ballantine Books, $27.