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.