Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Perfect Stranger.
Leaving Boston under the cloud of a restraining order, former journalist Leah Stevens happens upon old friend Emmy Grey.
Both young women are in search of a place to start over. As Leah describes the encounter, there is a tenuous friendship between the two women but similar needs as they agree to share a place in a rural Pennsylvania town. Leah accepts a job as a teacher, Emmy a less structured means of employment that also includes a new boyfriend. The roommates’ hours are odd; they rarely meet except when coming and going. When Leah notices a group of people gathered around a crime scene on her way to work, a body in the woods, she wonders if it might be Emmy.
Thus begins an erratic tale of things gone wrong, deep-seated fears that suggest a twisted psychological angle to keep the reader guessing.
Occasional answers lead only to more questions. Who is the woman in the field, and what has happened to Emmy? The only character providing any real information, albeit slight, is Leah.
Her descriptions of their friendship, the scarcity of personal effects and Emmy’s disappearance plant significant doubts about the relationship. Leah’s growing fear and suspicions do little to infer this tale will end well for the protagonist.
Miranda fashions a slack thriller out of the barest of details: two former friends starting over, friends at least in Leah’s mind; memories that fill Leah with episodes of self-doubt; the trajectory of her past colliding even here, in this house in the woods; a police detective uncertain about Leah’s status in the local case. It is, in essence, a tale told backwards, built gradually on people and events from Leah’s murky history, her inability to walk away from an unsolved mystery that has shattered the new life she had hoped to pursue.
Characters move in and out like ghosts. Phantoms haunt Leah’s memories, Emmy’s disappearance confusing her, distorting her reactions, too many missing pieces to the puzzle. The answers remain elusive, motivations indistinct. As the protagonist’s personality takes shape, even her identity proves suspect, probably deceptive or possibly guilty: “Truth and story++doesn’t matter which comes first, as long as you get where you need to be at the end. As long as you end at the truth, all’s fair.”
I am mistrusting the protagonist, Leah Stevens, from the first page, her ambiguous statements clearly meant to obscure as well as entice. In its context as a mystery, I look to Leah for basic facts, for clues she leaves along the way. Married more to plot than characters, the house of cards is meant to collapse eventually, the protagonist hardly more distinct than the other players--just as shallow, the novel’s resolution monotone, sadly colorless. The author has an impressive pedigree, suggesting the complexity built into The Perfect Stranger, but that same level of preparation is at odds with what feels like dispassionate dialog. Miranda makes me work too hard for what I experience in her thriller.