My first thought within the first couple of pages of The Liar, by Nora Roberts, was how similar the setting was to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl – not in a predictable, copycat way, but using the same marital dynamics to create mystery and intrigue, exploring the fascinating idea that you can be married to someone and have no idea who they really are. Unfortunately, that was about as far as the intrigue went for me, as what followed was a cookie-cut, run of the mill thriller story (with few thrills).
The Liar follows the life of Shelby, a bored and unsatisfied housewife who has to rebuild her life after the sudden death of her husband. In the wake of his death, details of his life begin to surface that reveal how little she knew him, how many secrets he kept from her, how generally horrible he was and how, as the cherry on top of it all, he has left her millions of dollars in debt.
It is an intriguing premise but the exposition comes too quickly and all at once. It’s not a backstory that is revealed slowly and in pieces, but, rather, is laid out plainly in the first chapter, highlighting the problem I felt throughout the whole novel: Roberts doesn’t fully seize the mystery or thrills in her story. There are countless opportunities to, but instead they are the left to drift by while she focusses more on the domestic and mundane day to day moments. The novel is built around Shelby moving back with her family and rebuilding a more stable life for herself, so there’s naturally a need for more personable storylines. Yet too often they take precedent instead of simply bridging together the more dramatic and important plot points.
A key aspect of Shelby’s new life involves the contrived romance with Griffin, a small town, boy-next-door type, who is everything her dead husband wasn’t: attentive, devoted, loving and present. Aside from Griff, Shelby also has her young daughter take of, relationships to rebuild with her family and friends, and a new job to find to provide the final bit of stability. Again, Roberts gives these aspects of the story far more of the word count than the mystery itself which ultimately makes the story drag and throws the pacing off.
There are occasional moments of suspense to remind us of the underlying tension, including the return and murder of a mysterious ex-wife, attempts at murder of Shelby’s loved ones, suspicious break-ins and a surprise gun found in a deposit box. It’s all as interesting as it sounds, but we’re never given a chance to fully engage in it before we’re rushed along to the next day in Shelby’s life. That is, the mysteries are reacted to but never investigated. It feels they’re simply waited out and swept aside for more stories about Shelby’s relationship with Griff. There is never a comfortable balance between the two worlds. As such, it’s hard to fully engage in the differing plots and drama as they’re both so touch and go. This is also hindered by the shifting perspectives, which also lazily reveals the actions and intentions of the bad guy as well as our protagonist, thoroughly undercutting any tension and removing the element of surprise (which goes without saying, is hugely important to a thriller).
Plot and tension problems aside, Roberts does succeed in presenting an authentic protagonist and her family dynamics. Even Shelby’s relationship with Emma Kate is an accurate and endearing portrayal of female friendship that was always a welcome tangent in the story. Unfortunately these great characters are not enough to save the story for me, as the stakes are never high enough, even by the third and final act. The predictable twist is another a weak pay off, and one that is hinted at very heavy handedly throughout all the previous chapters (he died, but they never found a body, hint hint). The villain himself is also hardly threatening, I suspect because there’s little given to build up to his “terrifying” appearance in previous chapters. It’s a shame because the story has so much potential to seize the mystery of Shelby’s husband’s secret life and turn it into a truly terrifying thriller, but it all falls a bit flat.