It is 1956 in Tangier. Lucy Mason shows up for an unannounced visit with her estranged friend Alice Shipley. The two had been college roommates and inseparable friends in Vermont until some unspecified tragedy resulted in their not having spoken in a year. In that year Alice married and moved with her husband to Morocco. How did Lucy find her? Why did she come to Tangier?
In alternating chapters, the two women discuss both the past and the present. Both are unreliable narrators. Alice is emotionally fragile; in Tangier, she struggles with anxiety and loneliness, and she speaks of “darkness and shadows” hovering above her “so that at times I questioned the accuracy of my mind, of my memories” (185). Lucy is more independent but experiences “a slight fluttering” in her ear which was diagnosed as “a nervous condition” (24-25). And then there’s her unhealthy obsession with Alice. Their versions of past events conflict so the reader is left to wonder who is telling the truth.
The pace of the first part of the book is glacial. It is only when the mystery of the tragedy in Vermont is explained that things pick up. Unfortunately it is then that the reader’s credulity is stretched to its limits. The villain’s machinations suggest she possesses exceptional foresight. The success of her schemes also requires great serendipity, unqualified stupidity on the part of the police, and extreme gullibility on the part of several people.
Why is Lucy is always stumbling? When Lucy first arrives, she describes stumbling so her knee “connected with the hard, dusty road beneath” (17). Later she collides with Alice “so that she fell to the ground, a cry escaping her lips” (187). Shortly afterwards, Lucy stumbles again “enough to wrench my ankle so it smarted” (193). And then again, “I lost my balance, falling to the hard, dusty ground” (204). Alice becomes equally clumsy: “I jumped at the sound of her voice, slipping in the process, my already bruised knees connecting with the hardwood floor” (213). Yet one of these klutzes somehow acquires both mental and physical dexterity and becomes a criminal mastermind?
Neither of the two women made a connection with me. Alice is the demure rich girl who lets herself be manipulated by the insensitive cad she married on short acquaintance. Lucy has more spunk but she also does stupid things like becoming involved with a man who has a reputation as a grifter. Both are emotionally overwrought and constantly over-analyzing everyone’s facial expressions, gestures, and words. There’s just too much needless drama for my liking.
This book came to my attention because it became the subject of a bidding war in the U.S. where Harper Collins bought it for a reported $1.1 million. It has since been optioned for film by George Clooney’s production company, with Scarlett Johansson billed as the star. It is huge hype for a debut to live up to, and I’m afraid the book does not. I almost always prefer a book to its film version but perhaps in this case the film will be better than the book?