Shepard has good writing skills, but much of this novel, a psychological thriller set in contemporary Palm Springs and Los Angeles, feels juvenile and flat. It's easy to get swept up in the marketing material promoting The Elizas as a cross between Hitchcock and the novels of Patricia Highsmith. The plot has serious themes--mental illness, murder, alcoholism and family dysfunction--yet the narrative never displays a real sense of danger. It's a little confusing that Eliza Fontaine would mirror the actions from the fictional heroine in her new book, The Dots, and would welcome her Aunt Dorothy back into her life quite so unquestioningly.
In The Dots, wealthy Aunt Dorothy behaves like an elderly Aunty Mame, muddling through Dot's life in search of affection. With her signature Hermes scarf printed with prowling leopards tied around her neck, each of Dorothy's outbursts is an attempt to portray her as a quirky personality. Dot's mother can't handle Dorothy any more ("she's my sister, I grew up with her; she's always been this way"). Dorothy has become Dot's martyr, her real addiction. From their evenings out at M&F, a dark little club in West Hollywood, to their long limo rides around the city and flowing champagne, Dot clearly loves her aunt, even though a reservoir of fear and uncertainty is brewing inside of her.
I guess Shepard's aim is to sow seeds of distrust in both Dot's and Eliza's worlds. It's the fourth time Eliza has almost drowned. Her family seems fatigued after they learn she was rescued from the bottom of the pool at Palm Springs' Tranquility Resort. Eliza thinks back to her drunken binge at the hotel's minibar just before strong hands pushed her from behind. She tells Lance Collier, forensic pathologist with the Palm Springs PD, that she's not delusional. Collier is convinced that Eliza probably just fell in the pool and was maybe too wasted to realize what she was doing.
Back in her Burbank home, Eliza begins her search for the truth. She has to fight the reputation for being a drunken liar and a fabulist. Perhaps there's a third girl in the room, a different Eliza: "I'm the Eliza who just had a few too many drinks." Despite the cocktail of drugs, despite her frustration, Eliza remembers the night perfectly. Desmond Wells becomes Eliza's reluctant hero after it's revealed that he pulled her out of the pool. Desmond is positive there was someone else on the pool deck. For all her faults, Eliza remains driven by the memory of two nights ago at the Tranquility.
Through flashbacks, we're transported back to Dot's story, despite the similarities in Dot and Eliza's circumstances: Dot has been getting sicker ever since Aunt Dorothy came into her life. Eliza has a chronic drinking problem, though she seems to have been cushioned from much of the fallout by her parents and a sister who refuses to tell her the complete truth about her circumstances. There are mysterious references to the "accident," but Shepard keeps us waiting before she reveals the details. Though Shepard does a good job of presenting Los Angeles in gritty shades of film noir, clearly The Elizas is young adult fiction (I think it misleading that the book is being promoted as the author's foray into adult fiction).
The idea of having an unreliable heroine whose memories bumble into one another is nothing new. I just prefer to read books where the narrator is a little more sophisticated and grounded. Shades of Highsmith and Hitchcock are an extremely attractive prospect, but The Elizas doesn't exactly do anything new with these tropes. Most of the characters, including Eliza and Dot, come across as flimsy, their motivations a little weak, and their loyalties not convincing enough.