The Short Version: A mysterious novel ends up in Catherine Ravenscroft’s home – and she’s sickened to discover that it is about her. About something secret that happened in her past. And whoever has written it is out to get her – but they don’t know what it is they’re digging up either…
The Review: In Much Ado About Nothing, the male ingenue Claudio makes a startling pronouncement at his wedding: that his chaste and wonderful bride Hero is actually a slut who has slept with AT LEAST one other man. He and his buddies storm off after causing her to faint – and her dad stands there and basically swears to kill her himself if they’re telling the truth. He doesn’t immediately say “oh, that can’t be true” but rather that if it is, etc. and if it isn’t, well, then those boys will have a reckoning coming. This whole plot point is one of the most uncomfortable in the popular Shakespearean canon, redeemed only by the brave Beatrice standing up for her cousin – but I find that it’s only uncomfortable because such behavior is not as anachronistic as we believe it to be.
Take the characters in Renée Knight’s debut novel: all of them believe the main character to be guilty of infidelity without really ever even questioning it. She’s not as secretive as Nick Dunne or anything – she’s actually pretty normal, pretty boring and ordinary – and yet these people just eat it up. They believe a story sold to them by a stranger, a story that barely passes a basic rationality test… and yet everyone is willing to throw away what is good to join in shaming this woman.
Why? And, perhaps more concretely, what of the twist(s) that occur later in the novel? They’re bold moves, but moves that make everyone else’s snap judgement seem even more flawed. They don’t give the other characters a redemptive moment, as Shakespeare does, but instead they just make you think “well, obviously you should’ve thought for a split second longer, buddy.”
But I feel like this is the crux of the novel. We are quick to smile at the misfortunes of others, to jump on the bandwagon of blame – and I think it’s because we’re pleased that someone else has drawn notice, that another person has screwed up and gotten caught… and we want to join in shouting at them so that nobody notices our transgressions. This shows a remarkable lack of faith in humanity, although a supportable one. People don’t trust one another, do they? Not really, anyway. We’re so quick to believe the worst and so reluctant to believe the best – or even the mundane. Novels like this do their part, hopefully, in drawing readers’ minds to the subject…
…but the novel itself must be memorable, enjoyable enough to last in the reader’s mind along with the ideas. And I’m not sure that Disclaimer is such a novel.
Oh, yes, it’s being touted as the latest pretender to the Gone Girl throne – but the problem that really nearly all of the thrillers in the wake of Flynn’s smash hit have had is that they don’t invest in their characters. Nick and Amy are fucking psychopaths, both of them, but Flynn cares about them. She lives with them and makes us care about them. They feel like real people in spite of – or perhaps because of – their heightened craziness. Whereas Catherine and Robert and Stephen and these other characters… they are wisps. They’re grease to keep the plot moving. Oh, sure, there are humanizing touches to each of them, but they’re interchangeable. If you shook up the Modern Thriller Magic 8 Ball and plugged in a different setting, a slightly different socio-economic status, and a different background life-thing… the novel would not change. It would not be worse, it would not be better, it would be the same. Nothing feels like it matters here because the plot machinations are driving the story from moment one. And while this can work when you’ve got a firm hand on the till, the gears grind a few too many times for me to think that Knight deserves the praise she’s received.
And this is a shame. Because the issue she’s grappling with here – and, although she doesn’t make the Shakespeare reference, she does call it out explicitly at the end of the novel, this thing of being more readily able to believe that Catherine actively did something instead of REDACTED SPOILER – is an important one. It’s victim-shaming, it’s distrust, it’s something unfortunately at the core of human interaction these days. Too bad our popular fiction isn’t quite rising to the occasion of helping us address these issues in a real way. Yet, anyway.
Rating: 3 out of 5. It’s a speedy read, with a good plot twist 2/3rds of the way through (although a pretty predictable one). And Knight is putting victim-shaming front and center, with no one ever being willing to let Catherine explain her side of the story (regardless of what that side might be). But the machinations are obvious and the characters barely-there. I’m all for a good thriller – and the idea of discovering that you’re the main character in a book about a salacious part of your life is definitely a refreshing starter moment – but I’m disappointed that we keep proclaiming the thriller of the summer and they keep being hollow. At least, this one is.