Better known for her ‘Still’ series, Canadian author Amy Stuart has just released a new domestic thriller titled A Death at the Party, perfect for those looking for a fast-paced read that covers the usual tantalizing menu: affairs, long-held secrets among family, a hint of sinister periphery characters. But just because I’ve read a book like this before (and will likely read a few more in my lifetime) doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, quite the opposite! It was a fun and engrossing read. As I described it to someone else a few days ago, she got so excited she asked for my copy when I was done, and I have no doubt that if I talked about this book to others, they would run out and buy a copy too. It’s currently on Canadian bestseller lists now anyway, but let’s see if this review helps get the word out even further.
The first few pages of this book set a up a shocking scene; Nadine, the hostess of the party is watching the life ebb away from a man on the floor of her bathroom. He’s begging for her to call 911 and help him, but she refuses, walks away, and tries to act as normal as possible as she rejoins the party upstairs. Other than the fact he’s male and knows Nadine, we have no idea who this man is. Next, the book takes us to the morning of that same day; Nadine has woken up early with a long list of to-dos as she wants tonight’s birthday party for her mother Marilyn to go perfectly. Marilyn is turning 60, and she’s a famous murder mystery novelist who struck it big when Nadine was a teenager. They still live in the same town and are quite close, but secrets linger between mother and daughter. Nadine is recovering from a broken hip and few months of hospitalization still, so it becomes clear that people around her are careful with what they expect of her. She is also on some medication, which introduces the potential of her being an unreliable narrator. Her secrets alone are many, and there are many men around her who are potentially dangerous or out to hurt her in some way, so as the day progresses and the party plans come together, readers are still trying to determine who the night’s murder victim is going to be.
There is an undercurrent of darkness running throughout this book in addition to the obvious death at the beginning. The gender divide is strong in this novel; women are believable, dependable and lean towards honesty. Men have ulterior motives, are sexually inappropriate, and unreliable parenting figures. Through the course of her one busy day, Nadine runs into a wide swath of people (especially men), attending the birthday that evening; the storekeeper who sells her secret cigarettes, the attractive caterer who sends out mixed signals, the disheveled divorcee who looks at Nadine in the wrong way, the aging but handsome neighbor that can’t work his own washing machine. But as we learn more about Nadine’s past and the secrets she keeps, this gender divide gets a bit murkier, her reputation becoming just as questionable as some of the men listed above. As we near the end of the story, every character embodies elements of threat, even her beloved teenage daughter and son seem to be harbouring secrets that could bring their whole family crashing down. Its easy to paint Nadine as paranoid, and there is always the question of how her medication affects her judgement, but these darker shades of each character offers a juicy form of suspense that kept the pages turning.
With shorter chapters ending on lots of cliffhangers, the pacing is perfect for this type of novel; it has to move fast, or readers will start to think a little too hard about the details. Sometime I like being picked up by the racing wave of a plot and dropped back down again at the very end. If I spend too long gazing back at what I just read, the fun is ruined, and this book is meant to entertain, first and foremost. But I don’t want to dismiss the writing of the book either; despite her hazy past and reliance on medication, Nadine is a relatable character whose domesticity makes her a protagonist that you can’t help but cheer for. She’s a caring mother who tries her best to help those around her, so even though we know she’s (potentially) killed someone, we hold out hope that everything will be explained away by the end of the book. No spoilers in this review, but if you’re starting to plan out your summer vacation reading, you’ll definitely want to include this one.