Friday, February 3, 2023

Book Review: The House Guest

By Jami Denison

If domestic thriller writers are sending a message, that message seems to be: You can’t trust another woman. Despite the fact that women are most in jeopardy from their male partners, in fiction the danger comes from their best friend. Or their nanny. Personal assistant, sister, stepmother, mother-in-law, husband’s new wife. And as thriller readers, we are trained to expect that a husband might eventually be absolved, but the BFF is always up to no good.

In her latest thriller, The House Guest, Hank Phillippi Ryan takes advantage of readers’ expectations to craft a tale filled with unforeseen twists. How dangerous is it to invite a stranger into your home? Maybe not as dangerous as sharing it with a man.

After her wealthy husband leaves her, Alyssa Macallan is left alone on their Boston-area estate. Bill has turned their rich friends against her, and rumors are flying. Even though there’s a legal agreement saying Bill needs to tell her when he’s coming over, Alyssa is convinced that he’s sneaking in, moving items around, and otherwise gaslighting her. When she meets Bree Lorrance in a hotel bar and learns that Bree is hiding from an abusive ex, she impulsively invites Bree to move into her guest house. Bree is a sympathetic ear, and as it turns out, heir to a fortune. As Bree bonds with the lawyer in charge of her inheritance, Alyssa begins to wonder just who these two new people are, and what they really want from her. 

Alyssa is an easy character to root for, and her grief over the sudden end of her marriage is palpable and relatable. Ryan does such a good job establishing Alyssa’s loneliness and confusion that her impulsive invitation to Bree doesn’t seem too misguided. And Bree acquits herself almost immediately, helping Alyssa put an ex-friend in her place in a hilarious scene at a country club. At this point, the action starts to center on Bree, as Alyssa helps her with an online DNA site, tracking down a brother, and other wrinkles. 

In books like these, it’s imperative that tension builds on every page. I wanted to be scared for Alyssa and suspicious of Bree. Instead, Bill continues to be a bad guy, while a lot of action in the middle of the book fails to forward the plot in a meaningful way. (It was nice spending time in Alyssa’s Cape Cod home, though.) Several conversations are repeated a few times as the women wonder what to do about Bill. Ryan has a tendency to abandon scenes before they end, then picking up the action later and explaining what happened rather than showing it. This technique didn’t engage me. 

Things do heat up near the end of the book, as the plot twists one way, then another, then back again. I did like the ending, but by the time I got to it, I wondered if The House Guest might have been better served with Bree as the point-of-view character rather than Alyssa. 

Fans of the Netflix show Dead to Me should especially enjoy The House Guest, as the chemistry between Alyssa and Bree reminded me of the relationship between Judy and Jen. Not every thriller needs to follow typical beats in a prescribed order, and Ryan’s latest values relationships over plot points. And beach days and lobster dinners can be just as much fun. 

Thanks to Tor Publishing Group for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Hank Phillippi Ryan:

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