Written by Sarah Stovell — It takes quite some nerve to combine the title ‘Exquisite’ with the sensuous cover art of this book. Yet the picture of an isolated house against a dark background with a feminine curve cutting across it (or could that represent be the hills of Cumbria, where the action is set?) perfectly encapsulates the genre-bending qualities of this author’s second novel. It occupies a territory all its own, somewhere on the border of romance, psychological thriller and an unusual coming of age story.
Readers have come to expect plot twists in all recent psychological thrillers, but it can sometimes look like an author is trying too hard to create suspense by withholding vital information. Or else the twists are implausible or ruin character development. In this book, it is a more straightforward ‘he said/she said’ situation, and it’s all the better for it. You still have to decide who to believe, knowing that one or both of the narrators may be unreliable. In Exquisite, we know that a crime has been committed as the very first scene is set in a prison, but we don’t know its nature nor the identity of the perpetrator. The story develops quite organically, without any gimmickry. Far more attention is given to a thorough examination of the two main characters and their motivations, a slow but menacing build-up of tension and precise use of language.
Bo Luxton is a successful novelist who has been enjoying an idyllic and quiet lifestyle ever since she and her family moved to the Lake District two years ago. Her husband has retired, her daughters are enjoying their outdoor adventures and Bo bakes her own bread while she is writing, aware that she has almost become a bourgeois stereotype, but loving every minute of it. She is also in demand as a tutor for residential writing courses. It is on one such course that she meets the unconventional, aspiring writer Alice. Alice is young, stuck in a series of boring dead-end jobs and with a boyfriend whose artistic ambitions have dissolved in a haze of marijuana smoke, parties and long-term unemployment.
You couldn’t imagine two more diametrically opposed lifestyles, and yet there is something in Alice’s writing about her mother which strikes a chord with Bo. When she meets Alice in person, she is instantly attracted to the younger woman’s vitality and passion for writing, which reminds her so much of her own when she was young. ‘Alice was a burst of crushed energy. Her skin could scarcely contain her.’
She takes Alice under her wing and they start emailing each other. The younger woman seems flattered by the attention, but is she becoming rather too obsessed with her new mentor? Bo also appears to be losing her cool over Alice, but would she really endanger her perfect life to embark upon an affair which is unexpected and new to both of them? You just know this is not going to end well, but who is going to get hurt and how? The fun of the book lies in the inevitable downward spiral into obsession, jealousy and revenge.
You might be tempted to read Exquisite quickly, breathlessly, but I would advise you to take your time and savour the journey. The author is completely in control of pace and characters, like a fine piano tuner able to make the most minute adjustments to the tension in each string, each chapter, each interaction. Allow yourself to be played. Enjoy the music.
With more than a hint of Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal or Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, this novel will appeal even to those who do not regularly read crime fiction. For those who do like their regular shot of noir, it’s your next great read if you enjoyed unusual psychological thrillers such as Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard or Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars