Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be stuck in a foreign country, barely able to speak the language and with a baby to feed? Fortunately, most of us will never find ourselves in this situation, but it’s interesting to read about someone who does—especially if that "foreign country" is the United States. Claudia Lopez, fresh from Bolivia with her baby daughter, waits and waits for her husband to meet her in Newark International Airport before finally admitting to herself that he’s abandoned them, leaving them penniless and stranded in a country they know nothing about. Luckily, someone takes interest in Claudia and her plight -- a gorgeous, rich woman named Margot Fortune.
Margot takes Claudia and little Juliana under her wing, offering them a ride to wherever they are going. However, when they arrive at Claudia’s husband’s place, they find that he has disappeared, and the only person present is a ragged drug addict who tries to attack Claudia. With no other choice, Margot offers to let Claudia and Juliana stay with her until Claudia figures out what to do with her life. Unfortunately for Claudia, Margot is not the innocent guardian angel that she seems. She’s a high-priced prostitute who makes good money providing pleasure to rich, twisted men. Claudia soon figures this out and gets pulled into Margot’s seamy, sordid life. Things go from bad to worse when Claudia is accosted in the street and is told she must pay back her husband’s huge drug debt or risk having Juliana taken from her. The only way Claudia can make the money she needs is to join Margot in business — but will she be able to make the money before the lifestyle takes her innocence, or her life?
There have been plenty of novels about the sordid side of life, some of them better than others. What makes the good ones so good are the interesting characters who always seem to have a layer of kindness under their tough exteriors, or the fast-paced, thrilling plots. Unfortunately, The Payback by Hilary Hawke is not blessed in either of these areas. While Claudia has the making of a sympathetic hero in the beginning of the novel, she veers off into a frightening, hard woman halfway through the book without much warning or explanation. The rest of the characters are varying degrees of awful individuals, ranging from a self-involved hooker to blood-thirsty killers. As for the plot, it seems to go more for shock value than for a well-plotted mystery, and the ending is as inexplicable as it is confusing. Hawke seems to know quite a bit about the big city’s dark underbelly—it’s just unfortunate that she couldn’t populate it with the characters and plot to make it interesting.