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NOTES WHILE READING: FREIDA MCFADDEN’S THE HOUSEMAID AND LIV CONSTANTINE’S THE LAST MRS. PARRISH

by Zac Blake

Recently, Kindle gave me a few recommendations for mystery and thrillers. Not one to say no to a good yarn, I gravitated to Freida McFadden’s The Housemaid (solely based on its cover, yes, I do that sometimes) and Liv Constantine’s The Last Mrs. Parrish. It should be noted that I was unaware of a link between the two, but I’ll get to that later. 

THE HOUSEMAID

I’m not gonna lie. McFadden’s book started with a bang and kept me entertained. I’ve never – except for Stephen King’s older work – been this glued to a book. As its story progressed I got all sorts of feelings of movies I’d seen before and wondered what the hell was going on. 

Of course, McFadden didn’t just deliver – she did so in spades. Yes, her reveal is a little too adjacent to Gone Girl, but hey – that is what a good potboiler is supposed to do. Does it all add up in the end? Not really. Even so, I was highlighting like a force of nature, trying to perhaps out-guess the thing.

I was wrong.

Fast-forward a few hours later. I was almost cross-eyed as I raced toward its ending. As The Housemaid‘s conclusion arrived I was relieved that McFadden did not go into Wait Until Dark territory. You know – the false ending that delivers one “final scare” before letting the audience breathe a sigh of relief. I thought it tied all loose ends beautifully, and even let in a wink to the audience that “not all is over.”

THE LAST MRS PARRISH

The following day I arrived at The Last Mrs. Parrish. The Constantine sisters’ story is a slow burn, and meatier. It almost forces you to be alert for any tiny detail that may seem innocuous at first. Characters’ reactions. What is said. What is not said. What’s in the periphery, waiting for the right moment to reveal itself? At times it almost works as a character study, albeit, of a predatory woman looking to claim ownership of a house that is not hers.

Here is where things get a bit muddy. Upon diving deeper into The Last Mrs. Parrish, I noticed some similarities between this novel and The Housemaid. It made me question that perhaps I should have read this one first, but I kept on reading. As I read, I perceived an overall tone that while Mrs. Parrish was less about the “twist” in the middle, The Housemaid hinges solely on that, but (allegedly, unintentionally) used branches from the former to build its ladder. [That in itself is not a problem, but when you’ve just read one book and the next one feels like a rehash… when in fact it came earlier… Do you see what I mean?

And then, the framing. Much like Gone Girl, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (which was turned into the arthouse South Korean movie The Handmaid in 2016), or The Housemaid, we get a switcheroo of perspectives much like the big twist of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo. This time around, it didn’t quite catch me by surprise – that gotcha moment went to McFadden’s novel – but I found myself getting equally engrossed not by how lurid the plot could be (it wasn’t) but by its natural development. 

From here on, any similarities with the more recent novel ended, and I let The Last Mrs. Parrish reach its also equally satisfying conclusion.

INTERNET CHATTER ABOUT HOW SIMILAR ONE BOOK IS TO THE OTHER

It’s hard not to see what I saw, and read. The problem is, yes, one book follows another in more than just one development. Closely. Even something as having the wife let the friend borrow her clothes, and having the wife gain weight – trivial, I know – seems a bit much for comfort. 

However, I’m not going to be the one to point the finger. It’s not the first time that stories, songs, or movies appear to be mirrors of each other without entering the dreaded P-zone. Authors have been constantly accused of borrowing elements of one story and creating their own narratives since the printed word. That in itself is not a crime. There’s only so much you can do in the creative pool. It’s easier to produce a reconfiguration of a well-known Shakespearean play or an Edgar Allan Poe story than to, consciously or not, write a story that happens to follow the same terrain as another story that is only a few years old (which also follows the whole plot-twist at the middle). As a matter of fact there is an entire genre of romance — Regency romances — that models itself after the works of Jane Austen and her contemporaries, but mainly her. Of course, no one can or will write the book to replace Pride and Prejudice, so perhaps, that is a sign of a genre that remains populated by writers performing workman duties because they must sell to the readers who buy.

The same thing happens with cinema and songs. Back in the late 70s, certain chord progressions and trademark sounds, were not just copied but pilfered flat-out to create new music. To wit: Chic’s Good Times had Nile Rodgers’ famous bassline that was later “borrowed” by Queen in Another One Bites the Dust. Phil Collins’ Sussudio has a sound that is nearly identical to Prince’s 1999. The film, A Hijacking, a Danish film about a hijacking of a cargo ship was overshadowed by its American counterpart Captain Philips in 2013. There have been movies about the same subject matter coming out almost simultaneously. Such things happen.

CONCLUSION

Both books are good yarns and will most likely be turned into movies or miniseries. What I like about both is how well each story tackles domestic abuse and malignant narcissism. It would have been easy for either woman to go the way of exploitation of their own sex to sell a book. Both books have difficult scenes, although the ones described in The Last Mrs. Parrish are much more triggering, and much more scarring. In many ways, both stories almost go too far in their depiction of violence against women… and at the same time, not far enough. Just take a look at the news and you will find cases so unbelievable, so horrifying, it will make these two books look like a walk in the park in comparison.

If I were to pick which one of the two I enjoyed more, I would be remiss to say I would have to say neither. You see, both of them have solid storylines and well-rounded characters that behave as you would expect in this genre. [A more outre, artsy/intellectual approach would have perhaps veered into Ingmar Bergman territory and we would have had a whiff of Persona. Or an absurdist plot that turns into a Moebius strip.] 

To expand, I found the women at the center of the stories – all four – to be compelling, but not ultra-invincible. The husbands were terrifying each in their own way, and again, if you read true crime, these two are peaches compared to their real-life counterparts. Both novels are easy reads, with swift, brief chapters, and always keep you on the edge of “what’s next.” If that doesn’t sell a book then I don’t know what else to do.

Happy reading.

ZB