Quick takeaway: Excellent suspense thriller blends Sex & the City (friendships, lots of quick humor) with Hitchcock-level intrigue & mystery
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: I was super excited to read a paperback ARC of this novel, which I won in a book club contest, because I’m a huge fan of mystery-thrillers. This will be the first ARC I’ve given 5 stars to, so you can trust that my opinion can’t be bought.
The Return is a debut novel by writer Rachel Harrison, who received her bachelor’s in film/TV writing, which makes her book a very enjoyable and easy read. It reads very much like a Hitchcockian suspense thriller, with very gothic and creepy undertones…but combined with a very realistic and humorous look at friendship, a la Sex & The City. There are as many laughs as there are scares, and the character development is truly great for a suspense novel.
In The Return we’re introduced to our protagonist Elise, who is living a mundane and quiet existence in Buffalo when she receives a phone call from one of her college friends informing her that her best friend Julie is missing. Julie had gone hiking one morning in a national park and, according to her husband, never returned. Elise, Julie, and their friends Molly and Mae had met and become very close in college, and Elise – who was the closest to Julie – is the only one who has a hard time believing Julie is truly missing.
Just when her convictions are starting to wear thin from the endless months of waiting, Julie reappears on her own porch and is found by her husband, two years to the day she went missing. She has no memory of what happened to her, and the women immediately plan a getaway for the four of them to reconnect and celebrate Julie’s return. The getaway is set for a resort hidden away in the woods of Northern New York in October, where each room is vibrantly and aggressively decorated with a theme like “gothic red” or “jungle oasis” and comes complete with hidden hallways and real running water. Instead of seeming chic and modern, these themes will become sinister and haunting as the story progresses.
The three friends quickly realize that Julie is…very different than she was before. She’s no longer a vegetarian, eating meat almost raw and with an animal-life ferocity that frightens them. Her teeth crack and shatter, her face and body are gaunt, her hands are freezing cold, and she growls upon being touched. Elise, Molly and Mae agree to keep their questions to themselves as Julie continuges to recover…but as time passes, her changing habits make it harder and harder to keep their pact. Even worse, strange things are happening at the hotel: shadows that follow Elise, blood-like substances dripping from air vents, and missing staff who vanish without a trace.
Elise has a complicated past of her own; her current life in Buffalo is a punishment she’s inflicting on herself for cheating with a married professor, and her friendship with Julie’s husband grew uncomfortably too close for comfort over their regular phone calls while Julie was missing. Confronting Julie with the truth about what has happened to her, and what she’s become, means she really has to confront the truth about her own life decisions. The creepy happenings culminate in a crescendo of terrifying events: several of the friends fall gravely ill, the inn is barely functioning, and a bloody and vividly descriptive confrontation finally leads to the truth about who – or what – Julie is, and what will become of their friendships.
This novel was such a good read, because it’s difficult to find a true horror/suspense novel that reads like a nightmare while ALSO including a diverse array of characters whose friendships are more than shallow and underdeveloped plot points. These women have vastly different backgrounds, and they each have their own struggles – albinism, racism, missing limbs, complicated family dynamics – but they choose to be friends and to help each other overcome their own struggles and circumstances. (“So, for a while, she ended up giving away her life story to satisfy obnoxious strangers.” page 10) They are funny and honest with each other, even as they face their own crumbling situation…and we are privy to all of their best inside jokes.
The descriptions in this book were disturbingly good for a debut novel, and perfect for the storyline:
“But the silence isn’t really silence. The wind is relentless. It consumes the quiet, chomps on it, breaks its bones. Snap, crackle, pop.” (page 175)
“Something’s not right. Something’s not right. The feeling is so strong. It’s like watching a scary movie when the teenagers stand at the door of that old, abandoned house plagued by urban legend, and they reach for the knob slowly, and you think, I wouldn’t do that. I would go home. It’s the screaming intuition you suffer but they lack. Here I am, staring down the door” (p.161).
Overall, I’m adding Harrison to my list of fave thriller authors, and looking forward to her next novel.