Let me just say up front that despite only receiving three stars from me, this isn’t a bad novel. The prose is great — I’d go so far as to say it’s exquisite at times — the setting was interesting and evocative, and the mystery twisty and compelling. Everything points toward a wonderful reading experience for mystery lovers, except that, in my opinion, Tana French includes a single fatal flaw that sabotages the novel: Detective Rob Ryan, the narrator. He is, to put it simply, a chore. He’s a sad sack, he constantly makes bad decisions both as a detective and as a person, he’s rude to his friends, he’s absurdly judgmental, he has a myriad of problems with women (including an inexplicable anger toward anyone who shows any interest in him, as well as an equally inexplicable hatred of women who have salad for lunch, I mean what?), and perhaps most egregious of all, French decides that because he’s the narrator Rob needs to voice his opinion on every little thing, from the aforementioned salad lunches to his cuckoo roommate to how much he enjoys his sleepovers at Cassie’s. It became tiresome to me.
The more I read of this novel, the more frustrated I became because Rob kept getting in the way of the story. I understand that French wanted to craft a character who has significant emotional and psychological scars from his childhood trauma, but where she could have used this to make the reader feel sympathy for Rob, even root for him, she instead presents us with behavior that disgusts us and pushes us away, making it more and more trying to experience the story through his POV. (And frankly, many of his reactions in the latter half of the novel felt like a stretch even for someone who’s carrying around that much baggage.)
For all the good things this novel has to offer, and there are many, I find it hard to recommend it to anyone, simply because of the narrator. It’s a bold and ambitious decision to make your first-person protagonist so unlikeable, but in a dense and complexly written mystery where you’re deep in his head for over 400 pages it backfires. Or at least it did for me. It’s also quite bold what she does with the mystery from Rob’s childhood, a choice that has frustrated some reviewers and readers but one that I think serves the author’s overall theme of the knowable vs. the unknowable. I also love that French gives the woods in which his friends disappeared an almost supernatural presence.
But there were many times when I wanted to stop reading the novel altogether because I was so fed up with Rob. I’m glad I didn’t, although I suspect not everyone will make that same decision when the same thing happens to them.