The name "Karen" has such a specific, unfortunate connotation in the current media that when I started reading A Stranger in the House, I felt an immediate distrust, dislike, and annoyance toward the main character. Karen - who is a generic office worker who makes dinner for her husband and is obsessed about keeping a clean house - seems unabashedly normal at first. That is, until, she gets into a horrific car accident on the "bad" side of town, rendering her in the hospital with amnesia. With no recollection of why she left the house in such a hurry - stove on, pasta water boiling, her purse and ID left behind - her husband, Tom, wonders what secrets his wife may be keeping.
The plot thickens when homicide detectives discover an unidentified body at a crime scene near the site of Karen's crash, leaving the reader continuously turning pages in hopes of solving the mystery. Is Karen involved in something larger than herself? Does she truly have amnesia, or is there more she can remember? Written in oscillating perspectives using the close third-person, Lapena does an excellent job of inhabiting the minds of her characters. Most chapters are from Karen or Tom's perspectives, but some of the story unfolds through the eyes of Detective Rasbach or Karen's neighbor/friend, Brigid.
Cloaked in uncertainty, this mystery is exactly what anyone reading a mystery novel hopes for: an exciting, suspenseful thriller with well-rounded characters whose hidden lives intersect in a variety of complex ways. I spent the summer reading this book on and off, so much so that its paperback cover is slightly warped from wet, chlorinated hands and shuffling around in my pool bag. Books that no longer look pristine have been shared and well-loved; a warped cover is perhaps the greatest cover an author can receive.
It has been quite a while since I've posted anything here, but that is only because I have been reading about three books at once for the last few months, unable to finish any of them due to a reduced attention span and lack of time. That is, until I stayed up late two nights in a row to complete Want by Lynn Steger Strong; that fact alone should tell you all you need to know about the quality of this novel.
I've mentioned Strong's other novel Hold Still on this blog before when comparing the writing style found in Jocelyn Jackson's Never Have I Ever, so it might be obvious that I am a fan of her work. In the interest of full disclosure, I have also been a student of Lynn's (yes, we're on a first-name basis) at Fairfield University where she teaches in the low-residency MFA program. She was my first mentor as well as the director of my last workshop where I was able to be her teaching assistant. In a way, she book-ended my experience in graduate school, and I couldn't be more grateful to her for being a teacher, mentor, and friend of mine for the last two years.
That being said, Want has merits of its own that do not relate at all to my connection with Lynn. I mean, I fell in love with the novel the minute I saw the gorgeous cover. There is something to be said, however, about reading a book by a person you know in real life. It's hard to separate character from author, or at least it was for me. Lynn is also a teacher in New York with two daughters, so it was difficult to see the main character, Elizabeth, as a separate entity. Regardless, the voice in which this novel is told is so straightforward, bad-ass, and severe that it makes a story about finances, education, and female friendship more than just that; it is a relatable discussion of the hardships of post-graduate life from a jaded, often unhappy, individual.
Even though I see bits of Lynn in the story, I also see bits of myself, bits of my mother, my neighbor, my own best friend from childhood. It is a story that highlights the relationships between women and - through an almost anthropological lens - celebrates them in their weirdness and complexity. If you enjoy a candid narrator telling a story we can all relate to, flawed characters embracing their issues, and a story that weaves into itself like a well-crocheted blanket, this is a novel for you.