Not thrilled

I have read all of B. A. Paris’s books, most of which would be considered either suspense or thriller. Many writers (and publishers) and many readers’ advisors can’t tell you the difference between a mystery, a suspense novel, and a thriller. After reading exhaustive discussions and dissections, here are the differences at which I have arrived.

First of all, neither a suspense nor a thriller is about solving a crime, they are about stopping a killer or a crime. So they are not necessarily a whodunit as is a mystery; we may know who the villain is from page one.

In a thriller, the protagonist is in danger from the outset, and action is a required element. Pacing is the key ingredient. In suspense, danger is more important than action, and the protagonist becomes aware of danger only gradually. “Suspense is the state of waiting for something to happen,” said Alfred Hitchcock. Setting and mood are key. There must be terror, confusion, upset, and conflict.

A thriller has to start off with a bang, and have a clearly defined hero and villain, because the thriller is all about the push and pull between the two. By contrast, the only real requirement of a suspense story is that it build, and that it keep the reader on edge with a series of reveals or surprises until the final one. Suspense can be present in any genre; a suspense novel is simply one where the reader is uncertain about the outcome. It’s not so much about what is happening as what may happen. It’s about anticipation.

Given those definitions, I would term most of Paris’s books as suspense, although I have seen them referred to (and have done myself) as thrillers. She is great at building her narrative from seemingly innocuous to a crazy amount of tension. Perhaps her best example of this is Behind Closed Doors, in which you know, almost from the first page, that there is something wrong, but have no clue just how much there is to uncover until the story really begins to ramp up.

When I bought my copy of The Dilemma, therefore, it was with a great deal of anticipation that it would give me a likewise breathless interval. Unfortunately, I failed to achieve “that willing suspension of disbelief” (touted by the poet Coleridge) about some of the key facts present in this book upon which the story depends.

The basic premise is that Livia and Adam, married for 22 years, each has a secret he or she wishes to tell the other, but can’t quite bring themselves to do so because of the circumstance in which they find themselves. But it is that circumstance that sets up, for me, the biggest roadblock in this story.

Livia and Adam met when Livia was 17 and Adam was 19; Livia became pregnant, and was summarily rejected by her parents even though she and Adam married promptly, before baby Josh was born. Four years later, they added daughter Marnie to their family. The couple are happy in their marriage, pleased with the way their children have turned out, and possessors of many good friends, the most prevalent of whom are two other married couples about their age, and these people’s children.

Because of the dual facts of Livia’s pregnancy and the rejection of her by her parents, the two had a hurried civil service and were deprived of the big formal wedding about which Livia had always dreamed. This has apparently preyed upon Livia’s mind over the years to the point where she has saved up her money since she was 20 years old in anticipation of a huge and elaborate celebration for her 40th birthday. The story itself takes place during the 18 hours or so surrounding that celebration. And the birthday bash is the vehicle used to delay the confiding of devastating facts between the spouses.

This is the one big place where the story lost me. If you have that much regret about missing out on your wedding, why not stage another wedding? People renew their vows all the time and use that occasion to have things just as they would have wanted them on their big day. At one point Livia even comments that if she had waited an additional couple of years, the party could have been for hers and Adam’s 25th wedding anniversary, but no; she is determined to do it for her 40th birthday. This seemed to me to be so self-regarding as to constitute a problem; but apparently Adam is fine with it.

If a renewal of vows or a big anniversary are off the table and you’re so determined to make it all about yourself, why wait? Why not have the party at age 30? Why be so focused, for literally two decades, on one particular birthday? The story details at length how every time she went shopping and saw a fabulous dress, she mentally tried it on as a possibility for her big day. I just didn’t buy it that a person could be so self-obsessed with celebrating a particular birthday that they planned it over that extended period of life.

So, on to the secrets. Livia’s secret involves her daughter Marnie, 19, who is doing a year abroad through her college, and has been in Hong Kong for most of the past year. It turns out her finals are during the same week as Livia’s party, so she has told her mother she won’t be able to make it. Because of this big secret, which Livia has not discussed with anyone because she first wants to confront Marnie, she is somewhat guiltily relieved that her daughter won’t be coming home yet. She doesn’t want to divide her focus between the party and managing the fallout from the revelation amongst several people in their social circle. But Livia feels guilty for not having shared this information with Adam.

Meanwhile, Adam and Marnie between them have planned a surprise for Livia’s party, but events don’t go as planned and suddenly, Adam is overtaken by news that, if he shares it immediately, will ruin Livia’s big event. He is left to reason that as long as he doesn’t know the facts for sure, no one can fault him for not speaking up; but he knows that if and when Livia discovers how long he held this news back from her, she will be legitimately enraged. So Adam and Livia both spend the hours of the party keeping secrets from one another that they know will inevitably be revealed as soon as the party is over, and this dread (especially for Adam) overshadows what should have been a joyous occasion.

That’s it. That’s the story. That’s the source of suspense. And the machinations to which the author resorts in order to enable Adam and Livia to keep their secrets from one another are just ridiculous. Yes, by the definition I spelled out earlier, this does qualify as suspense for much of the story, although I couldn’t say that I remained uncertain about the outcome. But the vehicle here is a family drama that could have been adequately dealt with in a succinct and much more engaging short story, not dragged out for 342 pages of angst.

I’m not going to say, like some other reviewers on Goodreads, that I’m done with Paris and won’t read any more of her books; but if you liked the others of hers that you have read, my suggestion would be to skip this one and hope that she delivers a real page-turner next time.

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