Monday, January 18, 2021

Book Review: The Perfect Guests

By Jami Denison

As a real estate agent working in one of the most competitive sellers’ markets in history, I’m well aware of the lengths people can go to acquire the house of their dreams. Luckily, I’ve never been in the situations faced by the characters in The Perfect Guests, British writer Emma Rous’s sophomore thriller. The piece of real estate here is Raven Hall, a majestic manor in the isolated East Anglian Fens area in eastern England. The pull of this home has obsessed its residents for generations.

There are three distinct timelines in the book: 1988’s Beth, a 14-year-old orphan who stays at Raven Hall to be a companion to the daughter of the house, 14-year-old Nina; 2019’s Sadie, a struggling actress who’s hired for a murder mystery dinner party at a Raven Hall going under refurbishment after a long-ago fire and family tragedy; and an unnamed woman stalking Raven Hall’s residents, vowing to return to the home where she was forced out. Each of these characters is mesmerizing on their own, and the reader eagerly devours the pages, anticipating how the three timelines will converge. Beth, however, is the emotional heart of the book, a bewildered teen rejected by her aunt after the car crash death of her parents and older brother, so vulnerable that she agrees to go along with the machinations of Nina’s parents. Her circumstances are so compelling that Sadie unfortunately seems shallow by comparison.  

The plotting and pacing of the book is fantastic, as Rous expertly weaves the three timelines together. As Sadie faces real mystery and danger during the pretend dinner party, Beth struggles to comprehend the reasons for Nina’s parents’ bizarre behavior. The third timeline is arguably less compelling; without a year associated with the action, the biggest puzzle is trying to figure out when these events are taking place in relation to the other characters’ lives.

I gobbled up the book in a few hours the day after Christmas, forgoing the movie I had planned to watch in favor of getting to the end. And while the ending was both fitting and satisfying, it was also a bit too coincidental and convoluted for my taste. After finishing it, I felt there were a few ways Rous could have streamlined the book to make the ending seem less like a soap opera. 

Still, it’s a fabulous read, and fans of Ruth Ware, Agatha Christie, and other British house mysteries will be enthralled. With all its coincidences, The Perfect Guests is a natural heir to Christie’s work, and I hope Rous will turn out to be as prolific as Christie was. 

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review. 

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