You may want to up your anxiety meds before you read The House Guest by Hank Phillippi Ryan. Books are sometimes described as keeping you on the edge of your seat. It may be a cliché, but The House Guest does keep you perched precariously in just that position. I love the unreliable narrator in a book, but it wasn’t so much the narrator here but all the other characters I never could quite trust. I expected betrayal and deceit around every corner. If that’s not suspenseful, well, nothing is.
Alyssa Maccallan is a young, thirtyish woman whose husband of eight years has just left her. She doesn’t have a clue as to why he’s left, and he’s only talking to her through their lawyers. Alyssa was a first-year law student when she met Bill Maccallan, and she fully intended to finish law school and pursue a rewarding law career, alongside her friend Mickey. But, Bill was a hugely successful fund raiser for charities, someone who came from riches and seemed to be paying it forward, so to speak. He was able to convince Alyssa, who was Alice before Bill changed her name, that she could do more with charity work than a law degree, and they married and moved into a house of everyone’s dreams. With this house in Boston, a house on Nantucket Sound, and a house in St. Bart’s, Alyssa was living a life she could have never imagined living. She planned and arranged events where other rich people would gladly give to a cause. Then, everything came to a sudden stop when Bill announced he was leaving. No more handsome husband, financial security, or friends. The “friends” all stayed with Bill, along with the social life.
Alyssa is despondent and not crazy about rattling around in a huge house by herself, and the feeling that Bill has been slipping in and out of the house when she’s gone is weighing on her. She finds a bar at a hotel where her old “friends” wouldn’t be seen and gives herself a few moments of being surrounded by people. She meets another woman, Bree Lorrance, who is so down on her luck that Alyssa, in commiseration, wants to help her. Alyssa ends up inviting Bree to live in the guest house while Bree gets back on her feet.
Being a friend to Bree brings even more new people into Alyssa’s life. Alyssa gets involved in Bree trying to find a relative, and in connection to that Dez Russo becomes a fixture in Alyssa’s house and life. Of course, at this point in the book, I’m having trouble reading for all the red flags I’m seeing. Or am I just being paranoid? Maybe going from alone and lonely to having people who seem interested in her, even concerned about her is a good thing. However, when the FBI takes an interest in Alyssa, who’s interested in her welfare and who’s planning her downfall is anyone’s guess. This cat and mouse game needs a score card.
I had a bad feeling all the way through this book, just waiting for the bogey-man to jump out of the closet. I can’t remember ever reading a book where I distrusted so many characters. Even Alyssa is suspect at times, and there were plenty of times when I wanted to shout at her to do something different or not do something. I found myself wishing the story was one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books where I could choose what I thought was a better path for Alyssa. Of course, the fun, or excitement, of a book is those wrong choices that build the suspense and make us cringe. Hank Phillippi Ryan has been called a master of suspense by many, including Publisher’s Weekly, and it’s a well-earned title. The pace at which she discloses information and suspicions about the different characters through a glance or dialogue or odd action keeps the reader on the fence of hope that the particular character isn’t going to stab anyone in the back, literally or figuratively. The cat and mouse game between characters is a thing of beauty, an art that Ms. Ryan is particularly adept at. I’ve been unusually reticent in this review to describe the characters much, as their well-paced reveal, or should I say reveals, belong to the reader to discover. Besides, how does one describe shape shifting as it changes from one form to another.
The House Guest is a story of misdirection and deception that bring the twists to the reader with a jolt. Some readers will be familiar with The Twister, an amusement park ride popular in days past. You would be riding around in the ride’s car and suddenly be jerked or twisted to one side. Well, this is the image you might want to keep in mind reading The House Guest. You will not expect it, but just know that the twists will come and you will be surprised, often. You will not guess the ending, with the final delicious twist awaiting. A perfect thriller.
I’m grateful to NetGalley and Tor Publishing for an early copy of The House Guest. I still will have my own hardback from a favorite bookseller because it’s too amazing of a read not to have one.