THE WASHINGTON POST – Scenes from a marriage: It’s another pandemic Saturday night, which means – again – my husband and I are staying in. “Wanna watch a movie?” he asked. “Let’s make it a noir,” I suggested.
When – lo! – I discover, after three decades of marriage, that he has never watched Mildred Pierce (the original, of course, starring Joan Crawford and directed by Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame), the movie choice is easy. The title sequence of waves washing up on the California shore begins and so does my (helpful) commentary: “These noirs are always about drowning, going under. You’ll note that Mildred’s restaurant and her beach house are perched so close to the ocean, they look like they’re about to fall in.”
“Quiet,” said my husband.
The first scene bursts upon us – A pistol fires and we see Mildred’s cad of a second husband, Monte Beragon, fall to the floor. Before he succumbs, Monte gasped out one word, “Mildred!”
“In film studies, that scene is called ‘a false suture’,” I whispered. “We see Monte falling but not who’s holding the pistol. We make false assumptions based on.”
“Stop. Just stop,” said my husband, “or I’m going to turn off the movie.” So, I stopped. Some people just don’t appreciate a little informed guidance.
But maybe you will.
Here goes – Every chapter of Goodnight Beautiful, Aimee Molloy’s new psychological suspense novel, ends on the narrative equivalent of a “false suture”. Once – maybe twice – the technique is ingenious, in that it reveals to us readers how quickly we can jump to the wrong conclusions and stitch together faulty connections. Chapter after relentless chapter of “false suture” endings, however, reduce Molloy’s novel to an extended gimmick. Long before this zigzag narrative came to an end, I found myself channelling my spouse – “Stop, just stop.”
The premise here is as tepid as Miss Marple’s bedtime hot water bottle at break of dawn. A pair of newlyweds named Sam Statler and Annie Potter – who married in passionate haste – have decamped from New York City and moved to Sam’s Hallmark Movie hometown in Upstate New York, partly to be near his failing mother who’s ensconced in Rushing Waters Elderly Care Center. Sam, who’s a therapist, is awaiting a promised windfall from his aged absentee father. Confident that their joint bank account will soon be flush, he and Annie have bought a spectacular house. Annie, who holds a PhD in comparative literature, has abandoned her faculty position at Columbia University to become a visiting professor at a nearby undistinguished institution of learning. (Ain’t love grand?)
Sam works long hours and conducts his therapy sessions in a renovated ground floor office; though he’s an astute psychologist, he doesn’t realise that the intimate conversations he’s having with his clients are floating upward through a heating vent and are easy to overhear. There’s plenty going on with one comely client of Sam’s that the American Counseling Association would frown upon. Perhaps it’s all for the best that, as we learn in the Prologue to Goodnight Beautiful, Sam has driven off in his Lexus and disappeared, leaving Annie feeling angry and betrayed.
In that Prologue, Molloy (whose previous twisty thriller, The Perfect Mother is to be made into a movie starring Kerry Washington) describes Annie sitting alone in a restaurant, staring up at a missing person flier with Sam’s handsome face on it. A female whistles at Sam’s image in appreciation: “Whoever he’s gone missing with is a lucky lady. As in Mildred Pierce, almost all the events that follow that (misleading) opening scene is a flashback.
Plot is everything in Goodnight Beautiful; therefore, I can’t say much more about the story without either being complicit in its deceptions or revealing too many of its surprises. Perhaps one last thing I might mention is that Molloy’s suspense story riffs explicitly on Stephen King’s Misery.
The other inspirational source is Gillian Flynn’s 2012 blockbuster, Gone Girl, which is referenced obliquely in the novel. Gone Girl is to blame for starting this current fad in thrillers that rest on non-stop plot reversals and little else. It’s a fad whose time has come and should be gone, girl.