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by Megan Abbott
Simon and Schuster, February 2005
256 pages
ISBN: 0743261704

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Lora King is a straitlaced schoolteacher who shares her home with her brother Bill, who is a police investigator. Brother and sister are very close to one another until the time that Bill meets an erotic and beautiful wardrobe assistant named Alice Steele.

He falls completely under her spell, even after they marry. In every way, she is the perfect woman -- physically beautiful, magnetic personality, devoted to her husband, and their life together seems almost like a fairy tale. Alice soon becomes the consummate suburban housewife, ingratiating herself with the neighbors and Bill's friends by hostessing wonderful theme parties, preparing exotic menus and entertaining in high style.

At first, Lora and Alice are friends. Alice works to win Lora's acceptance, but Lora always has a feeling that something is amiss. When Lora dates a man who has associated with Alice in the past, she begins to learn things about Alice that are deeply disturbing. For example, she finds a picture of Alice fondling another woman's breasts on a playing card. From that point on, she begins to investigate Alice's past and discovers that she is not the woman that she has presented to Bill.

The book is touted as being a 'modern noir'. Set in Los Angeles in the 1950s, one might have expected to see a hint of Chandler's "mean streets". My hopes were high that this first novel would be a good example of that genre. There are not many female authors who write in noir well; in particular, very few contemporary female writers inhabit that territory.

Unfortunately, the book didn't fit the label for me. I found it to be a study of obsessive love, in Bill's feelings for his wife and in Lora's feelings for her brother. The book was an excellent psychological study of both Lora and Alice, but it had a very small canvas. It focused on Lora's unveiling of Alice's secrets, but it didn't have a larger purpose than that. In other words, it had noir overtones but not a noir attitude.

The book does succeed as a psychological thriller. The inter-relationships between the characters are very complicated and interesting. Bill is completely enamored of Alice, which leads to some surprising actions on his part. Lora is jealous of Alice but also protective of her brother which leads to some conflict in how she handles herself. At times, the relationship between Bill and Lora feels almost incestuous. Abbott reveals the dark layers of each of these characters; each of them sinks to depths that they didn't know they had.

DIE A LITTLE is an interesting and surprising book. Abbott succeeds at placing us squarely in Los Angeles in the 1950s, its culture, its attitudes. Her greatest achievement is in creating two female characters who are so enigmatic and complex.

Reviewed by Maddy Van Hertbruggen, May 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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