Careful What You Wish For: A Novel of Suspense
In Hallie Ephron’s expertly crafted standalone novel, Careful What You Wish For, two women in the Boston area are helping their clients get rid of accumulated stuff and in the process discover purloined rare objects: a several-hundred-year-old map with marginalia and first edition books stolen from a fancy New England college library. So the reader is rewarded with a richly embroidered backdrop to a plot that delivers thievery and a murder that unwittingly casts suspicion on one of the de-clutterers, Emily Harlow, who is also the novel’s heroine.
We admire Ephron’s plotting and the weave of all the elements that give the novel its forward propulsion, but we are also grateful for the amount of narrative space she gives to her characters and their various relationships, enough so that the inevitable arrival of the police doesn’t happen until nearly halfway through the book—a virtue, as police procedurals can tend to make one’s eyes glaze over. By then we’ve gotten a complex, fully fleshed out understanding of Emily, fastidious, organized and spare, and her less-than-healthy relationship with her husband, Frank, who by ironic contrast, is a hoarder and whose hoarding Emily allows because she believes it’s unfair to try and control the impulses of the ones you love.
Early in the novel, Emily actually hurts her foot due to the fact that Frank has brought too many yard sale finds into the house; and this inadvertent injury is a deft indicator of the marriage’s greater wounds. The point here is that while Ephron has written a rollicking story that revolves around the startling things found in a secret storage unit that belonged to the deceased husband of one of her clients, she also has given us finely realized portraits of less-than-perfect contemporary relationships. And it’s the portrayal of the pitfalls of these relationships and their inherent frustrations that end up causing Emily to commit an indiscretion that brings her under suspicion for a murder and, in so doing, naturally builds the novel’s inner compression.
Here’s the thing about contemporary novels of sensation, a phrase that goes back to the great, wonderful full-bodied creations of Wilkie Collins: contemporary novels of suspense are for the most part long on plot and short on characterization and even more scant on truly complex relationships. Whereas many writers of suspense fiction write great and thrilling yarns, they have trouble conjuring up characters who aren’t tropes; and while, many writers of so called “literary fiction” have no problem bringing their characters to vivid life, they struggle to write a propulsive or urgent narrative.
Luckily for us, Ephron is as strong on character as she is on narrative, and this is a rarity. There are a lot of household names in mystery and suspense who give us blood and guts and heart-rending twists and turns, but more often than not their people never jump off the page.
But when a writer of suspense fiction like Ephron nails her characters, the fiction itself becomes prismatic: Because we know these people, they suddenly are capable of all sorts of fascinating and erratic behaviors. And because we care about them, not knowing what they’re going to do only adds to the tension. William Kent Krueger is a master of this blend of writing, and Ephron is right up there with him.
And she’s funny too, very funny. Emily’s decluttering partner, Becca, says to her “What is it about men and their secrets?” The reader immediately thinks of men and their secret philandering. But then Becca goes on to say, “Don’t you think you’d know it if Frank had a jam-packed storage unit somewhere?” When the men in Ephron’s novel cheat on their wives, it’s not with other women, but rather they cheat by not divulging how much they are buying and hoarding. The idea of the cheating man is turned on its head and, in Careful What You Wish For it works beautifully.