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by Hilary Norman
Piatkus, January 2003
439 pages
ISBN: 0749906057

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Hilary Norman had her first novel published in 1986. While initially writing in the romance genre she channeled her later output into suspense leavened with love, her If I Should Die bearing the pseudonym Alexandra Henry . Others of her very popular titles are† Blind Fear, Laura ,Susanna, The Pact, Too Close, In love and Friendship. Chateau Ella, Shattered Stars, Fascination. Spellbound Deadly Games and Mind Games. Relinquishing an earlier ambition to become an actress the author swapped sides of the footlights to work with a television production company.

This is the first of Norman's works to have come to my attention but from what I have read of her other titles she seems to delight in psychological suspense. This book proves she has a good insight into disturbed (twisted?) minds.

Matthew Gardner. a young, divorced, American architect currently based in Berlin, is on a skiing holiday when he comes a cropper in the snow. Beautiful Caroline Walters, mother of two teenage and one pre-teen daughters as blonde and beautiful as their mother, goes to his aid. Despite having been widowed only three years after her husband, artist Richard, suffered a series of strokes, Caroline falls in love with Matthew and they marry. Matthew requests a transfer to his firm's London office since Caroline and her three daughters have a house there. He finds he is resented by the London head of the firm and, more seriously, by two of his three stepdaughters. Felicity, or Flic, as she prefers to be called, the eldest daughter and Imogen, the middle girl, seek to rid their mother and themselves of the intruder, to the dismay of ChloŽ, the youngest child, who likes Matthew. After failing to get Matthew, literally, lost, the young women conspire to make it appear to the world that Matthew is a dishonest villain. Caroline initially defends her daughters against Matthew's reluctant accusations, allowing mother love to overcome good sense. Matthew is distressed to learn from her that Imogen suffered severe depression following Richard's death then later he is even more disturbed to be told that Caroline, too, had been similarly afflicted, both being treated by Caroline's psychotherapist friend Susanna.

Matthew finds his only ally in his mother-in-law, Sylvie. While she would prefer not to believe her granddaughters capable of malicious acts such as had been directed against Matthew, her faith in the girls is not as unwavering as that of her daughter. Then the first death occurs, followed by other incidents that could well be murder and attempted murder.

At first I was tempted to dismiss the book as melodrama - it really seemed over the top to imagine a plot based on the resentment of children against their stepfather magnified to such a degree. Then I remembered instances recounted to me by acquaintances who had been widowed or divorced then entered into another relationship or marriage. Suddenly the plot seemed considerably more plausible.

I feel the author has gauged nicely the sort of additional factor that might push otherwise reasonable albeit mildly jealous children towards such extreme actions. As the jacket of the book implies, some families do harbour very dark secrets, secrets, indeed, held by, perhaps, only one member of the family which may darken every aspect of that person's life. The story begins lightly and happily enough with the love-almost-at-first-sight theme but rapidly darkens with each malicious act and its repercussions prompted by seriously disturbed psyches pushing the whole almost into the horror genre. So far as my initial evaluation of melodrama goes, while that was dispelled, I was tempted to resurrect that judgment at the finale of the narrative. The fact that I am still not quite decided redounds to the author's credit rather than to her discredit.

A thoroughly engrossing read, to be sure, but perhaps not one for anyone contemplating marriage with a partner who already has children.

Reviewed by Denise Wels, January 2003

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