Driving through the countryside one evening, Frances Thorpe, a low-level editor on the books desk of a British newspaper, happens upon a serious accident on an icy road outside of London. This unfortunate turn of events proves most fortuitous for the deceptively mild-mannered Frances; inside the crumpled car lies Alys Kyte, wife of a renown novelist, on the verge of death.
When the grieving family later implores Frances to visit, hoping she might help them achieve a little closure, she decides on the spur of the moment to embellish her account of Alys’s dying moments. By tacking on just the right flourishes, she not only wins the grieving Kytes’ affections, but also cracks open a door through which to worm her way into their glamorous lives. Doggedly competent as an editor, our increasingly conniving narrator is about to learn her true talent lies in shrewdly sizing people up, then demurely pressing all the right buttons.
“Alys, Always’’ takes ambition as its theme, or to be precise, the ambition to be special. Frances lives a life that is comfortable, but not nearly enviable enough. The daughter of a dreary, emotionally disengaged middle-class couple, she grew up in a village on the outskirts of the big city, a sheltered enclave where her parents are more than happy to remain hunkered down, living a life circumscribed by its oblivious middlebrow outlook, cheap Formica furniture, mild cheddar on cocktail sticks, and prudishness. Frances’s own love life is uninspired, while at work, our nearly middle-age protagonist is nearly invisible, quietly correcting typos and grammatical mistakes while those around her rack up sexy bylines.
Could be because she lacks the hunger of a born reporter. Early on, Frances informs us that the leisurely schedule of the books section is preferable to the rough and tumble of hard news — too much drama to be found there, she believes, too much “swearing and antler-locking,’’ a pithy prescription, as it turns out, for curing some of this book’s ills.
Author Harriet Lane, a journalist herself, writes with style, wrapping her suspenseful debut in lovely bits of gently creepy description, as well as delicious social critique: “Her mother is an interior designer,” Frances recalls upon meeting the insufferable girlfriend of Alys’s 20-something son. “It slowly dawns on me that I’ve heard of her pioneering work with taupe.’’ But the novel’s pleasures are hampered by an almost frictionless plot trajectory and the tendency to maneuver characters around in a similarly perfunctory manner.
To be sure, the transparency of certain types is much of the point. Frances enters a high society peopled by the terribly self-satisfied, by those who claim the center of attention as a birthright, their blithe narcissism furnishing their interloper with all the necessary material for her machinations. Yet, like the book’s habit of trotting out lists of the most visible class affectations, it is a world that can often feel facilely constructed, its psychology too content to collude with expediency. Frances especially hits her marks too perfectly, doling out emotional states in status updates: “I’m feeling distinctly uneasy now . . . ”; “As I listen, the unwelcome sensations begin again: the prickle of panic, of helplessness,” signposts that stand in for the messy business of emotional turmoil. Unfailingly self-aware and thwarted only in minor fashion as the pages speed by, Frances never has cause to betray herself, to give us a raw glimpse of her desperation or the full twist of her soul. As a consequence, she isn’t sinister enough to get under our skin. “Alys, Always’’ is a fast, sharp read, but it’s no Ruth Rendell.