“Before We Met,’’ Lucie Whitehouse’s third novel, opens on a distinct note of anxiety. Newlywed Hannah arrives at Heathrow to meet her husband, Mark, who is scheduled to return from a business trip to New York. But, as she quickly discovers, he hasn’t arrived on his scheduled flight — or on any other flight landing on that cold and rainy Friday night.
So where is he? They’ve barely known each other a year and a half, having met-cute over a beach bonfire at the home of mutual friends in Montauk, N.Y. A brief courtship followed — first tentative, then whirlwind — and soon Hannah, a 33-year-old British expat who’d been riding the plush waves of success in New York’s advertising world, found herself rapidly replanted back in England.
Mark eventually calls and offers an excuse that seems plausible but just doesn’t feel right to her. And as his absence grows longer she begins to reflect on her very recent past and makes some startingly discoveries in this mystery that has been compared to Gillian Flynn’s bestseller “Gone Girl.’’
Hannah considers how her return was unsettling in many ways. In a bid for domestic bliss, she traded in her independent lifestyle and apartment in Manhattan’s West Village for Mark’s tastefully refurbished Victorian house in a bucolic corner of London. Finding work in the recession-hit capital proved dispiriting. Hannah found herself chasing interview after interview, haunted by the pressure of realizing that “with every week that passed, she was conscious of the growing distance between her and paid employment, the diminishing relevance of her most recent campaigns. Her currency was devaluing.”
Now with Mark’s disappearance, Hannah’s situation suddenly shifts in an even more alarming fashion: Is she an experienced career woman or a modern-day version of Bluebeard’s wife, left to totter about in a rambling house with an overgrown garden awaiting her suddenly-uncertain fate?
Soon after, she discovers that Mark’s financial paperwork has vanished from his study; her personal back account has been emptied; and she learns that Mark’s work colleagues think he’s whisked her to Rome for the weekend.
This type of domestic thriller — read: just who is this stranger I’m married to? — is clearly having a moment, and there are some terrific and terrifying versions out there. Some aspects of what Whitehouse is doing here have been done before, and better.
That said, there’s no doubt that Whitehouse’s writing keeps you glued to the page — I read this in one sitting, and it was an enjoyable one at that. She’s got an incisive knack for setting scenes, transporting you skillfully into her characters’ space. I loved a scene in a New York bookstore in which Mark gently woos the commitment-phobic Hannah over a glass of wine, an author’s reading going on in the background, as well as the way Whitehouse captures the elemental feel of a wet London night: “The train pulled in at Parsons Green and Hannah got out. A light drizzle had started to fall while she’d been underground and the paving on the platform was slick and black, the halos around the streetlights smeared against the purple sky.”
And Whitehouse is great at the observations that inject an intractable sense of the real into the genre’s formula, especially the ways in which people interact with each other. After one sudden and particularly jarring verbal confrontation — Mark and Hannah’s first nearly-fight — Whitehouse drives home the uncertainty that’s been unexpectedly injected into the budding relationship: “They did what they usually did on a long walk, pointed out new restaurants that looked good, interesting buildings or people, but where usually the observations segued into broader conversations or sparked off new thoughts, that night they’d been like pieces of polite conversation traded by people who’d just been introduced.”
A gripping tale about ties that bind — ones that you’d prefer to sever permanently.Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.