The Stranger Game
Peter Gadol
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Buy *The Stranger Game* by Peter Gadolonline

The Stranger Game
Peter Gadol
Hanover Square Press
304 pages
October 2018
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Is The Stranger Game a suspenseful mystery? A portrait of a psychopath? An insightful look into how life's events can change us in ways no one expected? In this strange and surprising tale, a subtle menace creeps over the reader as 40-something Rebecca sits alone in her grey car in a city park. Rebecca is full of longing, but she also hasn't really realized what she's capable of. Ensconced in her small, tidy house, Rebecca laments the loss of her boyfriend, Ezra. She's just gotten back from the "stranger game," a sort of stalking match where she's been following a woman and her son. The game is supposed to help you connect in the most essential way while also helping renew a sense of empathy.

Rebecca is productive, kindly and practical (she has an accomplished career as an urban designer), but her participation in the stranger game has imbued her with a sort of creepy infamy. In these dark times, where season after season is plagued by political uncertainty and social unrest, Rebecca's self-confessed solitude seems to be amplifying her anxiety about the future. Ezra was playful and open, but it was also clear that he had his secrets. Perhaps he, too, was playing the stranger game. Ezra's been gone for two months, and Rebecca is getting worried. In desperation, she turns to the police and kindly Detective Martinez, who implies more than once that there's something peculiar about Rebecca's history with Ezra: "I think we both know you haven't been completely straight with me."

The novel's early chapters focus on the machinations of the stranger game, Rebecca's memories of Ezra, and a travel article by the enigmatic A. Craig, another participant in the game who doesn't want to become a ghost "but wants to get out and wander." A master player, A. Craig tells about his adventures as he drives across the city, slipping into tables at boardwalk cafés, following people before veering off to follow others. Who can resist such a game? Even Rebecca's disturbing qualms are smoothed over with an excitement effortlessly hidden in her sudden affair with freckle-skinned Carey, who picks her up in a bar then reveals to her that he, too, is a participant in the game.

Carey wants to see how far he can push, how far from home he's willing to go and how lost he's willing to get. At first, he cultivates an affable, easygoing personality to maintain his relevance. It's easy to be charmed by this façade, but through Rebecca's shattered first-person perspective, Carey gradually reveals a much darker side. Cary holds Rebecca tightly, telling her that everyone is safe, but the lie that she eventually tells herself about Cary (and later Ezra) cracks her life open with just enough skepticism that allows doubt, suspicion that "the old familiar dread" is about to seep in.

There's a lot about the stranger game that Rebecca doesn't know. Who are the stagers and their networks? How do people hire them, and how does it actually work? When a man is murdered, pushed to his death off the deck of a deserted house in the hills, Rebecca decides that she's done trying to figure out the stranger game and its connection to the police. She just wants to find Ezra.

Though the novel masquerades as a Patricia Highsmith-like thriller, I actually see the story as a meditation on love that is tied to Rebecca's loneliness and Carey's betrayals, all fervently narrated by a woman who seems obsessed by the stranger game's series of unsolved puzzles, including the whereabouts of Ezra, this "secret keeper" who can disappear without a trace. Detective Martinez tells Rebecca there's nothing criminal they can investigate--nothing signaling that Ezra is in harm's way, "nothing we can act on." But events are compounded by Rebecca's interrogation by Martinez's colleague, Detective Allagash, who admits that he doesn't have a workable theory.

From Carlos Garcia, the murdered man, to a gathering of tourist players and a bald stager, Rebecca can longer trust her own memory. Carey can verify her story to the detectives, but only if he exists as "the man she thought he'd known." Rebecca's dilemma is that she has temporarily lost sight of what binds humans to one another. Now her world is full of strangers: "the same epic sorrows, the same epic joys."

Like Highsmith's characters, who flourish in a world of paranoia, Rebecca's participation in the stranger game is contrasted with her love for Ezra. Her mind clogged with memories, Rebecca tries to disentangle the hurt her love has caused her. How could you draw a line connecting you with this one great love? How could you make that line indelible? Rebecca's urgent desire to finally get the heart of the stranger game eventually drives Gadol's mysterious novel into ever darker territory.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2019

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