From its arresting beginning when two women cross paths in a park, “Her” unfurls a tenacious set of tenterhooks.
Nina, catching sight of Emma at play with Emma’s toddler, Christopher, is gripped by a jolt of recognition: “The sensation of it, of finding her there in front of me after all this time, is almost overwhelmingly powerful: like panic, or passion. I feel my hands curl into fists. I’m very conscious now of my lungs filling with air, and then releasing it. . . . After that, I’m a little on edge when I’m out. . . . I’m scared of seeing her, and I’m scared that I’ll never see her again.”
Emma, six months pregnant and busy entertaining Christopher, doesn’t even notice Nina. But before too long she certainly will.
Lane neatly plays the two women off each other as they narrate alternate chapters. Emma’s days are packed with the minutiae, mundane and messy, of family life; Nina’s time is marked more pleasantly, if sterile-y, with massages, posh dinners and fancy-yet-soulless vacation homes. Emma, exhausted by the relentlessness of double motherhood — Cecily soon joins brother Christopher — wears her heart on her sleeve; Nina, a semi-successful painter, plays her cards close to her vest, but it’s clear that finding Emma has stimulated a new direction in her work: “My mind has started to fill up with color and texture . . . . There’s a softness there, and a roughness too. A coldness. Something has started to happen.”
But while Lane’s portraits of Nina and Emma, sketched in spare, pared-down prose, are filled with telling details, they also remain enticingly incomplete. When, for example, did the two women originally meet?
Then their paths start to cross more frequently. Unbeknownst to Emma, their interactions are orchestrated by Nina in a way that becomes more menacing by the second; Nina harbors tremendous rage toward Emma, and it’s partly Emma’s obliviousness that ratchets up the tension to a constant “look behind you!” extent.
Emma, who left a thriving television career, now spends her days picking up rice cakes from under radiators, emptying robot-patterned socks of pebbles and Lego bricks, wondering where her sense of independence and identity have gone: “I spent my old life meeting people’s needs, anticipating unreasonable demands and worst-case scenarios; I built a career on that sensitivity, that apprehension. It’s my particular tragedy that I’m still programmed with a desire to solve all problems, even now, when the authority I’m answerable to is a tiny illogical tyrant. Managing him, his whims and caprices, his passions and hatreds, requires every scrap of my energy, every ounce of patience. And usually even that isn’t enough.”
Meanwhile, Nina plays on Emma’s easily distracted attention, leaving mysterious, plastic-lettered messages on fridge doors, while occasionally tempering her actions with a stern self-talking-to: “Hold back for now. See how it goes.”
Lane, whose 2012 debut “Alys, Always” was a shiver-inducing tale of a woman insinuating herself into the bosom of a grieving family, has struck another rich seam of psychological-thriller gold. Coldly calculating, concealing a river of seething, roiling anger within, Nina brings terror to the lightest of touches — including a spontaneous stroke of baby Cecily’s head. And Lane homes in with frightening precision on the fleeting moments that can enrage a vengeful mind into action: hearing someone laugh, sensing another’s happiness.
“Her” is a lean, mean, exacting machine, a champion-racing car with a perpetually thrumming engine — 261 pages never spun so fast, so far. Putting friendship, jealousy, and the pitfalls of self-involvement under a microscope, it reveals how astonishingly differently the same situation can be perceived — or even noticed — by different people.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.