The publishing industry and the movie industry are lemmings, following popular trends rather than thinking outside the box to come up with something exciting and different. When a new book or film does break out – The Hunger Games (first book, then film) – everyone rushes to replicate that success. So we have had a whole series of dystopian novels and films ad nauseam, none as great as the one which started the trend.
We can say the same about Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller which was a bestseller and went on to become a film starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins also became a film, this one with Emily Blunt. So we can imagine all those intrepid editors at publishing houses going through slush piles trying to find the next thriller featuring a slightly crazed female protagonist and coming up with A Simple Favor by first time novelist Darcey Bell.
Like its predecessors, A Simple Favor follows a similar pattern. The woman at the center of the plot is narcissistic and unbalanced, but, like so many people with these characteristics, she can skillfully manipulate others to play along with anything she cooks up. The problem with this set up is that the protagonist and everyone around her become unsympathetic and unlikeable. (That was certainly the case with Gone Girl. Did anyone like Affleck’s character, even though he was the victim?) And without someone to latch onto, root for, the characters become annoying and the plot frustrating.
In A Simple Favor, Emily is in the driver’s seat. She seems to have it all – good looks, an attractive husband, Sean, who is British and works in finance, an adorable son, Nicky, a gorgeous home in suburban Connecticut, and a high-profile job working for a famous fashion designer, Dennis Nylon. She also seems nice, befriending odd duck Stephanie, a widow with a son, Miles, who spends her time writing a mommy blog. Stephanie is so needy that when Emily throws her a lifeline she grabs it with a vengeance. Soon the two are inseparable, spending afternoons stretched out on Emily’s huge sofa, drinking white wine, while their two sons enjoy a playdate. When Emily asks that her friend pick up Nicky after school, Stephanie is only too happy to help. But then Emily disappears and Stephanie is frantic that something has happened to her friend.
Stephanie tells part of her story in her blog, part in straight narrative. While Bell nails the tone and substance of a mommy blog, these passages are irritating. The condescending, cheerful content begins to grate, although this might be intentional on Bell’s part. After Emily’s disappearance, Stephanie uses the blog to enlist support to help find her friend (since she says her readers come from all part of the country, this seems a stretch). When it appears Emily is dead, she continues to keep everyone updated on Sean and Nicky.
There are many revelations and Bell skillfully doles them out. Truth be told, Bell has produced a page turner, even though the characters – Emily, Stephanie, and Sean – continue to act in ways that are off-putting and exasperating. By the end of the book, not one of the trio is anyone a normal person would want to spend time with. But we will be spending more time with them. A Simple Favor will soon be a feature film from Fox.
A Simple Favor
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