THE WASHINGTON POST – Never once in the history of domestic suspense tales – from James M Cain’s Mildred Pierce to Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies – has a fictional family turned out to be as “good” as it first appears. So we savvy readers know from the get-go that the title of AH Kim’s debut thriller, A Good Family, must be ironic.
Sure, the Min-Lindstroms may look close to perfect: like the faux families in those Old Navy and Cheerios ads, they’re good-looking, well-off and multiracial (specifically, Korean and Swedish). And, just like the families in those commercials, the Min-Lindstroms are too good to be true.
A Good Family opens and closes at the Min-Lindstrom family reunion at Le Refuge, a sprawling vacation house on the Chesapeake Bay that’s been featured in the Sunday New York Times. Le Refuge belongs to Beth Lindstrom, a pharmaceutical company executive who generates the big bucks, and Sam Min, a country club golf coach who doesn’t. Their two young daughters are part of the scrum of cousins housed in a barnlike luxury outbuilding on the property. Also at the reunion are Beth’s older sister and brother (along with their spouses) and Sam’s older sister, Hannah, who, at 49, is the only unmarried adult and the oldest person at the reunion.
Hannah and Beth take turns narrating the story, which tipsily loop de loops like a mosquito that’s buzzed through a pitcher of frozen drink. Plot is paramount in A Good Family. Readers should be forewarned that Kim isn’t concerned with psychological depth, literary style or atmosphere. Instead, the fun in reading the novel derives from allowing oneself to be tirelessly sucker-punched by plot revelations, chapter after chapter.
For instance, the first chapter ends with a zinger when Hannah spies her brother Sam having an affair with his sister-in-law, Eva. Scarcely before we readers can stagger away from that sight, we learn that this year’s reunion is a send-off for Beth, who’s due to report to Alderson federal prison camp in West Virginia.
Beth has been sentenced to almost 10 years for insider trading, as well as for the fraudulent marketing of a Ritalin-type drug (in the tempting form of gummy chews) that turned out to dangerously curb young patients’ appetites.
Bizarrely, Sam and Beth tell their two little girls that mommy is simply going off to camp for, like, a really long time.
Rare in a suspense novel, Kim often makes events turn out better than we anticipate. For instance, we might expect that Beth, upon “self-surrendering” at Alderson, will be walking into an Orange Is the New Black nightmare of hazing, degradation and overcooked vegetables.
Prison, however, turns out to be pleasant. Hannah, who goes along on the drive to Alderson, describes the facility as looking like “it could be one of the Seven Sisters all-women colleges, only with more dental problems.”
During the somewhat slapstick “admissions” process, Korean American Hannah – as opposed to Nordic blond Beth – is twice mistaken for the new inmate. (This scene is one of the few times in this novel when the multiracial make-up of the Min-Lindstrom clan seems to matter.)
Once on the inside, Beth is welcomed by her bunkmate, Juanita, who puts down her copy of Murder on the Orient Express to helpfully show Beth how to make her bed so that it passes inspection.
Although other prisoners sporting names like “Meatloaf Mary” and “Deb the Destroyer” threaten to be less congenial, a “dewy fresh” Beth admits to Hannah at visiting hours a few weeks into her sentence that: “You’d be amazed how much less stress you feel when you don’t have to worry about taking care of two young children, holding down a full-time job, and fighting off creditors.”
The mystery at the centre of A Good Family is the identity of the person who dropped the dime on Beth and her shady pharmaceutical practices. The Min-Lindstrom’s au pair, a young Swedish woman Lise, filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Beth and her company, providing prosecutors with information about her personal and professional life and reaping a hefty reward.
But someone more knowledgeable had to have planted the idea in Lise’s greedy little head.
During their first prison visit together, Beth begs Hannah to make good use of her library research skills and ferret out the identity of the mastermind snitch.
You’ll never guess; or maybe you will. No matter. A Good Family is a lively suspense diversion that provides the eternally welcome assurance that nobody has it all, at least not forever.