Release date: September 17, 2020 (UK)
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: The Baby Group, by Caroline Corcoran, is set to be released by Avon Books UK in September 2020, but I couldn’t find a preorder date or release date on Amazon or B&N for the United States at this time. The book is a mystery/thriller novel about a woman named Scarlett whose world crashes in around her as she prepares to return to work after maternity leave…because someone in her baby group, whom she considers a close friend, is ready to watch Scarlett’s life go down in flames.
PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Scarlett is a 35-year-old wife and mother, living with her husband Ed in the (very) small town of Cheshire, England. For the past year, her life has been centered on her maternity leave with her daughter, Poppy, who is just shy of her first birthday when we first meet Scarlett. Finances are becoming tight after spending twelve months at home with her child, and she’s reluctantly ready to leave her days of baby classes and coffee meet-ups with her four baby-group friends to re-enter the business world. She’s worked on becoming a successful Instagram blogger and has 7500 followers, but while she receives free baby equipment and swag for running Chesire Mama, she’s yet to turn it into a money-making venture. In her previous pre-mom life, Scarlett was a star in the world of marketing and social media at her job in Manchester…and while she’s filled with dread at the thought of leaving her daughter with a stranger during the day, she feels the tiniest bit of excitement at the thought of spending her days conversing with other adults and making her own food choices. Her husband, a successful accountant for a large firm, is also stoically pushing Scarlett to rejoin the workforce and take some of the financial pressure off…which she finds frustrating, considering his seeming lack of interest in sharing the parental responsibilities at home, even as they enter a dual-working partnership.
Scarlett’s former friends and coworkers have seemingly fallen by the wayside in recent months, and she’s becoming exceedingly close to three women she met in her antenatal classes during the last months of her pregnancy – Cora, Emma, and Asha. They created phone trees, group texts, and eventually playdates…and having 3 babies the same age has led them to spending multiple weekdays together doing mom-and-me activities and taking some of the pressures off of motherhood. They order each other coffee drinks, hold babies for bathroom breaks, and even feed each other when they’re breastfeeding. Scarlett realizes that she’s honestly sad about losing her regular playdates with her new friends, but she assumes that they’ve gotten so close that they’ll remain good friends even as she tries to resume a normal working schedule in Manchester, with a 30-minute commute.
Scarlett’s journey in this book becomes as much a voyage of self-discovery as it does an earnest desire to find out who is trying to ruin her life and marriage.”
But Scarlett’s entry back into the workforce begins with a bang that blows up her entire life. Her blog shows her perfectly curated life at home with Ed and Poppy, and her gatherings with her mom friends and their children…but before she was married and “properly posh” Scarlett, she was “wild-and-free” Scarlett. Someone who partied all night, drank and did drugs during the day, and who once – in a fit of grief and rebellion after losing a pregnancy – agreed to a filmed three-way with her boyfriend and a male friend. And that film was not destroyed, nor did it disappear. And now, as Scarlett discovers while re-entering the halls and offices of her employer, it’s been resurrected…and sent to literally every person she knows. All of her coworkers, her father, her husband, her in-laws…everyone, it seems, except her new mom friends.
Scarlett works hard to maintain the facade for her mom friends, keeping mum about the tape…but the rest of her world falls in around her. Her husband, who has always been uptight and private, becomes disappointed and distant. Together they hire a lawyer, who tells them that they can eventually remove the video from online…but that first, she should work to gather concrete evidence and figure out who has motive to destroy her life by posting it in the first place. But just as Scarlett begins her investigation, we as readers learn – through chapters written by someone titled “anonymous” – that the threat to her marriage, her job, and her role as a dedicated mother is much closer to home than she could have imagined. Because one of the three women in her baby group is the person who is actively trying to destroy her life…and she’ll go to ANY lengths to keep her from finding a way to pick up the pieces, including revealing even more damning secrets that Scarlett is desperate to keep hidden from her past.
MY THOUGHTS: This was my first book by Corcoran, but I will pick up and read almost any British thriller I can get my hands on. The version of the book that I read was the British release, and it took me a good 30-50 pages (and the occasional use of Google) to get used to all of the non-Americanized slang like “WAGs” and “Noughties music” and all of the British pop-culture references. (And as someone who has read so many British novels that I regularly think of elevators as lifts, parking lots as car parks, and “bloody hell” as a great curse…I was stunned at how much work apparently goes into translating a British novel for us across-the-pond readers.)
Corcoran writes in a very stream-of-consciousness way, where it seems as if we’re literally hearing every single thought that goes through Scarlett’s head as she lives through the experiences in the novel. If you’re used to a thriller novel that has more mystery and an unpredictable narrator (think “The Girl on the Train,” “The Woman in the Window,” or just generally Ruth Ware), this can be disconcerting or hard to get used to…but I was able to appreciate the raw honesty and emotion that this evoked after Scarlett’s life starts to fall apart. She spirals through grief, shame, and a desperation to find out who is doing this to her and why…and in the process, reveals many raw truths about the difficulties in being a wife and mother right now. In regards to leaving her daughter with a child-minder during the day, she says, “I’ve overdone it. Even I know it. But if you pack enough bags, the feelings of guilt can perhaps be squashed under their weight. If you buy enough stuff, perhaps what you can’t purchase – time with your daughter, sanity, a mind that isn’t running away with thoughts about the right time to get out Doggy Dog – isn’t as obvious.”
Scarlett’s journey in this book becomes as much a voyage of self-discovery as it does an earnest desire to find out who is trying to ruin her life and marriage. She begins to realize that she doesn’t know her friends from the baby group as much as she thought she did – “We might not have each other’s job titles down, but we know each other’s judgments,” she says. And these judgments among women – the harshest critics, it seems, of other women – seem to be the impetus for what is happening to Scarlett. Her former boss sends her a text to tell her that no one is judging her at the office, and her response? “And I laugh. Because everyone is judging me every day, everyone is judging everyone every day. What they’re posting, what they’re wearing, what they’re ordering, where they’re going. What their job is, who they’re married to, what car they drive, what make their bag is. Sling a sex tape into the mix though and you up the stakes.”
Those snap judgments often lead to fractures in relationships, especially when combined with a heavy dose of anxiety, likely mental illness, and our imperfectly incorrect impressions of other people. Throw these things together in a fiction novel, and you get an unsuspecting victim of an explosive powder keg of rage, which is what happens to Scarlett. She is betrayed by people she believed were her friends, and she has to learn when to stand up for her marriage, her choices, and her friends…and when to let go. By the end of the book, she’s undergone an intense and dark personal transformation…but there is a ray of hope that, just maybe, she walks away in a better situation than you would have imagined existed in the deepest dregs of the story.
To be completely honest, I was doubtful at first that I would like this book; the language and style of writing was a bit much for my liking at first, but I was really won over by the time that Scarlett headed in for her fateful first day back at work. I found myself nodding along with Scarlett’s brutal and honest observations about marriage, relationships, and motherhood, and about what it’s like trying to be honest with the world (especially on social media) about who you are without seeming TOO happy and successful (smug), or TOO depressed and unlucky (ungrateful): “What a precarious balance it is, I think, of being happy in public but not too happy. Celebrating your wins but not being smug. Making it clear that you’ve had your allocated amount of shit times without spending your life moaning. I am drained, thinking about it.” Scarlett’s experience in The Baby Group is an extreme version of what happens when you spend more time worrying about keeping up that delicate balance than you do learning about the people you allow into your life.