Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines's take on Poison.
What starts out as an ordinary marriage turns into something much darker, contaminated by suspicion of manipulation and murder. Despite sometimes overwriting, Neiderhoffer wins with the disturbing tale of Cass Connor. Although Cass starts and ends her day with her most important people--her three children--she chooses to ignore that her husband, Ryan, has yet again called to tell her he’s stuck at work. Time passes; the kids are settled. At first, Ryan seems to be Cass’s antidote. In reality, these two are strangers--not husband and wife but an “uncomfortable mix of the “feminine and ferocious.”
The blurring Cass and Ryan's voices and perceptions and the obsessive repetition of words contribute to the irresistible momentum and fevered intensity of Poison. At forty, Cass is more beautiful than she imagined she might be and “more exhausted than she cares to acknowledge.” After the death of her first husband, she and Ryan move to Cumberland, a lush, quiet satellite suburb of Portland, Maine. She gets a part-time job lecturing aspiring journalists in what is perhaps a fresh start. Ryan seems to have enthusiastically embraced fatherhood. He’s good for her kids, and her kids are good for Ryan. For the moment, at least, Cass has peace of mind, domestic bliss, and the knowledge that her kids are healthy and happy.
Yet Ryan is constantly distracted. Again, he claims a work emergency. Cas remains silent as he suddenly leaves then appears at night like some sort of “caped crusader.” He’s seeing a therapist, due to the onslaught of work and life stress. Tim--and the unpredictability of fate--seem to be pushing Ryan in another direction. Cass senses Ryan’s resistance in his growing secretiveness, his fanatical demolition of their kitchen, and his violent outburst when Cass finally plucks up the courage to confront him about his affair. From her own vantage point, Cass lays her marriage bare to examination. Most disturbing is Ryan’s crime of the heart, the disgusting proof that he has set a trail for her, a sinister treasure hunt in which each bread crumb leads closer to a trap, and closer to certain ruin.
Over the course of a week, Cass’s symptoms worsen: constant nausea, twitching hands, and pervasive dizziness. At night in the bath, her hair falls out. Ryan stares at her with utter loathing as though she is vile and filthy. Cass feels herself giving away her convictions for the prize of Ryan’s attention. As the pages turn, we indulge in chapter after chapter of Cass’s impressions as she desperately tries to tell the authorities, who refuse to believe innocence but presume madness. Cass is either a victim of attempted murder or someone afflicted by paranoid delusion: “It doesn’t matter if it’s a rape, abuse assault or drugging, she’s crazy.” Her father is no help. Like Ryan, he’s immune to reason and has no respect for monogamy--even less for women. He even blames Cass for uncovering Ryan’s infidelity.
Following Cass on such an intimate a level may not appeal to all readers, but those who enjoy an anxious, paranoid read will be compelled and engaged. No matter the personal take on the choices that Cass makes, readers will have sympathy for her being constantly blindsided by Ryan’s nefarious plot. Cass has fought to understand and educate others about the perverse afflictions of men like Ryan, but she never guessed that she would live it. She and her children are trapped by the system’s compulsion to believe a man’s testimony over a woman’s.
The novel about misogyny tracks the push and pull of Cass’s desires. Ryan is her “poison,” an attractor whose dose is fatal, both her lover and her tormentor. She’s yanked between craving collapse into his arms and running from him. He’s a philanderer and a liar who loves attention and has a love-hate relationship with the truth. Neiderhoffer notches up the tension, drawing us into Cass’s paranoid, vaguely mad word. Only in the last quarter of the story does the dreary procedure of the courtroom persuade the reader to plow onward at a faster, less meticulous pace. But even this masterfully reflects Cass’s innate desperation as she begs for someone to believe her. As Cass gets sicker, “her soul is vacating her body.” Ryan has set her on a course as though she’s “on the plane locked on auto-pilot, careening into the mountain.”
The mystery behind Cass’s poisoning lies at the heart of the story. She struggles with the weight of all the physical evidence, the heft of the empirical data, and the realization that she’s being is eaten alive by the lies of her husband. Reportedly based on Neiderhoffer’s own marriage, there is nothing subtle about this tale’s message. A quiet unease hangs over the action. Though Cass is injured by the secrets Ryan cultivates, her husband--with all of his Machiavellian, masculine bluster--turns out to be the weaker of the pair.