In case you’re wondering why I’ve been reading so many thrillers about the perils of parenting lately, my latest segment for radio is all about this topic, so don’t worry, I’m not experiencing any mid-life parenting crises! Nothing more than usual anyway. It does beg the question though, why are there so many books that focus on this right now? I suspect it’s just a natural progression of the ever-enticing thriller genre; many authors found popularity by writing about the dangers of marriage and never really knowing your partner, so we’ve moved on to the suspense of never really knowing your children. Plus, you certainly don’t have to be a parent to enjoy these books (or find them frightening), in fact, it’s more likely that reading them may reinforce plans to never have kids. Whatever your situation, Playing Nice by JP Delaney is most definitely a page-turner.
Pete and Maddie have a rambunctious two-year-old son named Theo, and they live a fairly settled life with a few secrets lurking in the background. Then they learn the devastating news that their son was mistakenly switched at birth with another young boy at the neonatal intensive care unit they were both recovering in, so their birth son has been growing up with another family who lives only a short car ride away. Miles and Lucy were the first to discover they had the ‘wrong’ son, who they’ve named David, so they approach Pete and Maddie with the hope that everyone will just keep the boys where they are. Different parenting styles and various misunderstandings eventually make this arrangement impossible, so lawsuits are drawn up with the very real chance that Theo may be taken away from Pete and Maddie, mostly because Miles and Lucy are substantially wealthier. It quickly becomes clear that Maddie and Pete aren’t the only ones with secrets (although we only get their first-person perspectives) but the drama of family court is where all decisions are made. Poor Theo and David find themselves in the middle, but luckily they are too young to fully understand what’s happening around them, so it’s really just the parental dynamics that move this fast-paced plot along.
The ‘switched at birth’ premise is what really piqued my interest in this book because it’s something I hadn’t come across before in my years of book reviewing. If both sets of parents turned out to be fairly normal, this would have been a work of literary fiction rather than suspense, but luckily for us thriller junkies there are a few psychopaths lurking among the pages. The income distinction between the couples also adds an interesting wrinkle to everything because it gives Miles and Lucy an unfair upper hand when it comes to the legal system, obviously muddying the waters for the kids too, because wouldn’t every two-year-old prefer to live with the family that could provide an unlimited stream of toys? But Delaney only allows us into the minds of Pete and Maddie, which naturally endears us to them, despite how imperfect their situation may appear.
Once they enter the family court system, everything that once seemed impossible is now on the table, which gave me a glimpse into the terror that some parents must experience when they realize their child may be taken away from them. Could there be a worse fate for a parent? Deemed unfit to live with your own offspring? Granted, these are important laws we have, and they are meant to protect kids, but what if the judges get it wrong? Maddy and Pete are suddenly subject to intense scrutiny while Theo’s behavioral issues are deemed a sign of irreparable parenting missteps. Pete’s laptop is confiscated while Maddy’s wine intake is deemed unsafe, but I couldn’t help considering them the good guys, for the most part. As the investigation continues, one of the major themes of the book is the deliberation around ‘good parenting’ and what that really means. I appreciated Delaney making an effort to build serious topics like this into a book meant for entertainment.
The ending wasn’t entirely shocking, but there were certainly a few pulse-racing moments that had me skipping ahead to see how my favourite characters fared. The switched at birth premise is a reliable tool and plot point to hook any kind of reader, but Delaney has demonstrated the ability to keep us reading enthusiastically ,right through to the end.
Watching other people parents is WILD. For instance, I’ve seen so many occasions when a totally “granola” parent is trying to talk reasonably to their child, who is throwing a MASSIVE fit that is clearly the result of that kid learning that throwing a fit that they’ve done before and got away with at the time. Anyway, that’s what I think because I’ve read parent forums in which they discuss how a child throwing a fit who is then rewarded with whatever he or she wanted just ONE time — and then they keep doing it until everything is remedied, which is apparently hard to do.
It’s easy to judge parents when you witness something like this (I’ve definitely been in the role of the judger and the judgee, it’s inescapable, we are human) but also, sometimes kids are just dicks b/c the don’t know how to manage their emotions yet, so at some point in their lives, tantrums are just unavoidable. Another reason why parenting is such a challenge! haha
Oh, my heart. I love you to bits, Anne Logan <3
Such a great situation for fiction but must be awful in reality. And awful for the kids knowing that the parents felt differently once they knew there wasn’t a biological link…
Yup totally, I want to read some memoirs about this!
great review and i do remember this one being quite the edge of chair reading. mercy!
thank you! the pages definitely turned quick on this one 🙂
I think this would provoke too much anxiety for me, ha ha!
Yup, fair Laila. It’s definitely provocative.
Your point about what shifts a story from literary fiction to a thriller is an interesting one to ponder. I honestly don’t know if I could co-parent with anybody other than my husband. Even my closest friends whose kids I love just do things differently.
Based on my own experience with the neonatal ICU, I could actually see how easy it would be to mix babies up. We got only a few minutes with Pearl before she was taken there and her little bracelet got lost somewhere along the way. Peter told me later he was terrified that he wouldn’t recognize her when he visited later! Fortunately, she’s turned out to have some strong family resemblances, so we’re pretty sure she’s ours.
haha phew! I think that’s why it’s happened a few times with babies getting mixed up, as terrible as it sounds. Getting the babies to that life-saving place is so important, that everyone is rushing around so it’s normal the bracelets would fall off those tiny limbs!
They didn’t realize until I was being released a week later and the nurse was hesitating while Peter and I were just slowly packing out things, like, Well, we’re pretty attached to this baby now so we’re just gonna go… Rose was born at our local hospital which is so small that she was the only baby born that day. So she’s 100% ours!
What an interesting premise. And I love the feeling of wanting to leap ahead to see if the characters I am most attached to are okay.
I just can’t finish the book. It is too much. Peter and Maddy just can’t win with anything. I hopped on here hoping to see how it ends. No spoilers here!
Ha I don’t blame you for abandoning this one. I typically try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but you can easily find one on Goodreads no doubt 😉