Release date: July 14, 2020
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: I was happy to receive an ARC of this book directly from the publisher (Minotaur books), as I am a huge fan of thrillers and can’t resist a twisty summer beach read. (This will 100% be an unbiased review, as you can tell by the number of stars given above.) This is a debut novel for Downes, and I would like to point out that the version I read was the paperback ARC (which did have some spelling errors and spacing errors that I know will be removed prior to the finished product). The Safe Place is a debut mystery/thriller novel with the tagline, “No Phones. No Outsiders. No Escape.”
PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: We meet our protagonist Emily on her absolute worst day – she’s flubbed an audition that she desperately needs as a struggling actress, and she loses her temp job as a receptionist at a financial firm. She’s about to be evicted from her terribly basic flat in London, and her bank account is in overdraft. When her agent calls a meeting to tell her that she’s moving to America and Emily is being dropped by the agency…well, Emily hits rock bottom.
Should she dare call her adoptive parents to ask for monetary help? The last time she’d spoken with her mom, Juliet, they had an explosive argument about how Emily only ever comes home when she needs money. When Emily swallows her pride and tries anyway, Juliet realizes that Emily has forgotten her birthday, and she hangs up the phone…leaving Emily ashamed, depressed, and completely out of luck.
But then, her luck seems to change…when a chance encounter on the street ends with Emily’s former boss, Scott Denny, saving her from an almost-deadly accident. Scott offers her the chance of a lifetime – move to France, live in a gorgeous palatial estate hidden away on the coast, and help his wife and daughter with tasks around the estate. She would be “a housekeeper/au pair/personal assistant,” in his own words, and she would really be doing him quite a favor. Emily is flabbergasted by this opportunity – and more than a little attracted to Scott, who is seeming more and more like a knight in shining armor. The chance of a lifetime has fallen into her lap…but should she take it?
What was refreshing was that this wasn’t the same storyline you find in SO many thrillers (Did someone cheat? Did the husband/wife do it? Did someone fake their own demise?), which made it more interesting.”
Feeling like she has no choice, Emily says yes, and is whisked into a world of riches beyond her imagination…and a level of privacy she’s never experienced, complete with miles of wooded seclusion, security cameras in almost every room, and a required signature on a non-disclosure agreement. She falls in love with the two gorgeous homes and the beautiful infinity pool, but she also falls hard for Scott’s wife, Nina, and their lovely but troubled young daughter, Aurelia. Aurelia has many health challenges that stem from an incident in her infancy, Nina confides; she is mute, allergic to the sun, and has tantrums and night terrors that border on violent. Emily recognizes parts of her own troubled childhood in Aurelia, and she begins to grow incredibly close to both women.
But as her time at Querencia continues, Emily begins to realize that some things are never what they seem. Was this opportunity really too good to be true, and did it just happen to fall into her lap? Or was she hunted down and chosen for reasons unknown to her? She begins to see that the houses are not the only things on the island hiding secret rot and decay inside, and her slow unraveling of the truth behind the Denny family’s secrets and seclusion is a tense and taut journey that includes flashbacks from Nina’s perspective, as well as current views of how the truth is literally tearing Scott apart.
It all culminates in a terrifying and tragic confrontation – who will come out of this summer alive and unharmed, or will they all be transformed forever? And is it ever okay to bury a difficult and horrifying truth, or is it always better to bring dark deeds to light – even when the consequences could be utterly devastating?
MY THOUGHTS: I enjoyed the story and felt compelled to read until the end to find out what was truly happening at Querencia, and I wasn’t disappointed in the unique yet ripped-from-the-headlines plot twists. I will admit that it took me about 50-75 pages to feel invested in finding out what would happen, but then again, I am a (very) picky mystery/thriller reader…and by the time Emily was at the beach house, I was completely drawn into the plot. What was refreshing was that this wasn’t the same storyline you find in SO many thrillers (Did someone cheat? Did the husband/wife do it? Did someone fake their own demise?), which made it more interesting.
The setting itself was enough to make this book a good summer/beach read, and it was described in lush detail. If Querencia existed in real life, this is the type of place I would like to retire to (after winning the lottery). The character of Nina was well-written and we were able to get a solid peek into her background, her marriage with Scott, and her reasons for all of the questionable decisions she made. I do believe that Downes needs more space to flesh out her relationships between the characters; the attraction between Emily and Scott felt a bit forced or sudden, and Emily occasionally felt flat or a bit too one-dimensional…but I definitely feel like Downes’ character development will likely only grow in her future novels, likely with the help of great editors and publishers.
Both Scott and Nina were excellent examples of tragic characters with vastly different flaws and coping mechanisms. Downes did a good job showing us the many facets of mental illness, depression, anxiety, and grief…and the decisions the characters made reflect reality for a lot of people who have faced, or are facing, tragedy and loss.
(For more sensitive readers, the book does contain scenes depicting self-harm, kidnapping, suicide/suicide attempts, natural infant death, and what could possibly qualify as Munchausen’s-by-proxy.)