Release date: August 4, 2020
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ (9/10 stars)
SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: Behind the Red Door was written by Megan Collins, whose successful mystery/thriller novel The Winter Sister was published in 2019 (and featured in the Book of the Month club as their monthly thriller). Behind the Red Door is set to be released on August 4, 2020 by Atria Books. The novel is about “a woman who comes to believe that she has a connection to a decades-old kidnapping, and now that the victim has gone missing again, begins a frantic search to learn what happened in the past.”
PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Fern Douglas is a happily married school social worker on summer break – the only time of year she’s not actually “allowed” to concern herself with the students she cares for during the academic term. She lives with near-constant anxiety, which she proactively manages with medication and visits to her therapist, and she’s attempting to enjoy a quiet and relaxing summer with her husband Eric.
Her weeks of (hopefully) mindless relaxation are interrupted by a phone call from her father, Ted, who asks her to return home to New Hampshire to help him pack up for a big move to Florida. Shortly before she leaves Cambridge to make the trip, she’s startled by a news story about a woman named Astrid Sullivan. Astrid had disappeared from her home in New Hampshire 20 years ago, only to be returned – bound and gagged – two weeks later…and now, she’s disappeared again.
Collins unravels the mystery thread by thread, moment by moment, as Fern’s memories and instincts grow stronger – and as she, by default, becomes more comfortable standing up for herself.”
Fern is overwhelmed by thoughts that she knows Astrid, that she’s seen her before…but where? Her return home is plagued by dreams that seem more like memories, and complicated further by her psychologist father Ted’s typically cold and clinical relationship to his daughter – whom he’s always viewed more as a scientific experiment than his own child. He even deserts her at the local hardware store, forcing her to accept a ride home (and thus reluctantly reconnect) with her biggest childhood bully – all in the name of his dedication to research.
But Fern brought home more than just boxes and packing supplies; she also bought a copy of Astrid’s recently released memoir, giving a new and detailed account of her captivity. As Fern delves into Astrid’s descriptions, her own memories are triggered…and she falls farther into a dark web of deception, mistrust, and doubt. What really happened to both Astrid and Fern twenty years ago, and who can she trust now, as the days pass relentlessly by with no signs of Astrid’s return? Is it Fern’s destiny to uncover the truth, or to disappear unseen into the darkness as well?
MY THOUGHTS: I devoured Collins’ first novel, The Winter Sister, when it was released in February 2019, so I was eagerly anticipating this new release. I enjoy nothing more than a twisty thriller that delves into someone’s past, and this book definitely delivers that – once I started, I didn’t want to put it down until I was finished. And, to be fair, that’s saying a lot, because there are very few books I’ve read this year – even 9/10 star books – which managed that feat.
According to her biography, Collins has taught creative writing at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and Central Connecticut State University, and she’s won several literary prizes…which naturally lends itself to a more poetic/academic way of writing (which I enjoy). Her descriptions of anxiety, for example, are dead-on for anyone who’s suffered from it before: “In the daylight, things are different. They always are,” Fern says; then, “Even so, it’s like I’ve walked into a spiderweb I can’t wipe off, the silk of that dream sticking to my skin.”
If you enjoy an unreliable narrator, but a LIKEABLE one (I know – it DOES happen), you’ll feel right at home in Fern’s story. Her nightmare of a childhood makes it no surprise that she’s blocked out large portions of her memory, enclosing them (at least temporarily) in darkness for her own safety and sanity. “Our brains can do that,” Fern muses. “Especially when we’re kids. They can scrub out whole people, whole experiences, leaving only a tiny trace of the truth.”
Behind the Red Door is as much about hard-earned redemption and self-awareness as it is about a mystery needing to be solved.”
And to her credit, Collins doesn’t turn Fern into an unmotivated alcoholic (a la The Girl on the Train, or The Woman in the Window), or give her any unhealthy coping mechanisms that make it hard to root for her. Instead, we want to hold a mirror up to Fern’s distorted view of family and her childhood, and gently let her know that what she’s been through is not acceptable, and – in fact – is completely to blame for her constant worry and fear.
Let’s also not forget, in the midst of this self-exploration and psychological deep-dive, that we’re in the middle of a mystery spanning twenty years. Where IS Astrid, and are Fern’s dreams and memories of her real? And if they are, is Fern in danger too? Collins unravels the mystery thread by thread, moment by moment, as Fern’s memories and instincts grow stronger – and as she, by default, becomes more comfortable standing up for herself.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a well-written psychological thriller. Behind the Red Door is as much about hard-earned redemption and self-awareness as it is about a mystery needing to be solved. And even if you guess the ending – and thus, by the nature of this story, the beginning – I think the plot’s arc of resilience and self-reconciliation still keep the story fresh and inspiring, and ward off any disappointment that would be felt with just a basic whodunit.