Spoilers in the second part of the review
Read Exquisite and meet one of the most chilling and appalling characters. I can’t say a huge amount more before the spoiler mark below, but what I can tell you is that Exquisite is an enjoyable thriller to read though the really interesting bits come once you know what has happened and can reconsider what you thought you already knew. You can rock through the novel in a few hours and I mean that as a compliment. Sarah Stovell’s novel is fast-paced and you want to know more, and it is punctuated by a set of slow reveals: the book invites you to take a moment every so often to take stock of what you’ve read so far and review your prediction about what has happened.
We know that some sort of relationship takes place (OR DOES IT? as the back cover screams) and someone’s in prison – a woman (so that rules out husband Gus). We see, we think, the sides of the two main protagonists and this all seems quite reasonable. We enjoy the ambiguity, the trivia in the women’s lives, we note the differences in their accounts, and we suspect that one or both of the women is an unreliable narrator; for most of the book it appears that either of the women could have done whatever-it-is that has resulted in a custodial sentence. This is both thriller and a kind of romance. I’m not too familiar with the romance genre and at times I’m not convinced by the escalation towards obsession: Stovell works hard to explain why each woman would appeal to the other, but what they share seems quite slight if packed with meaning. It does make rather more sense at the end.
Speaking of ‘the end’, in the last few chapters, when it’s clear that trust has broken down, each woman decides to write up the story for publication (one is a successful but fading author, the other a talented wannabe); one of them in particular wants to put out her side of the story before it’s too late – and it turns out that we have been reading an account completely constructed by one of the protagonists. This opens up questions about the role of the narrator as well as their reliability.
I thought Exquisite was clever, sophisticated and refreshing, and like the affair it describes, all-absorbing.
For me, one of the more fascinating aspects came once we knew that the book had been written by one of the characters. There are certain aspects that she can’t necessarily know about the other: the nature of her relationships especially with her main partner, the story of Christian, what really happened during her teenage years. The true horror of that other character only comes out in the final chapters, which suggests some dramatic licence, calling into question her motivation; you can argue that the narrator has pushed the more questionable behaviour until then because that’s when the real conflict takes place – but I’m not sure: this character is pretty clear to herself about her own motivation. I’ve seen that some other readers have gone back through the book to look for more clues: I haven’t had time to do that myself but I agree that this provides another layer to the book and makes it stand out against other contemporary psychological thrillers.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.