Before She Knew Him: Peter Swanson
Genre: Psychological thriller
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Slytherin
It was supposed to be an ordinary dinner party.
But on the day she meets their new neighbors, Hen discovers something she shouldn’t. The item in question is reminiscent of a murder case that Hen followed intently a while ago, and she can’t help believing that her next-door neighbor is a killer. But the last time she accused someone of being a threat just before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she really hurt someone. So would anyone think to believe her? What do you do when you live next door to a killer?
Meanwhile, Matthew is keeping a dark secret, but he knows it was for the greater good. He also knows that he saw Henrietta looking at his shelf, but that doesn’t mean anything, right? He knows that he wouldn’t want to hurt Henrietta, but there is still a threat lurking. And little do they know that Matthew might not be done killing just yet.
Before She Knew Him is an interesting and suspenseful addition to the popular thriller genre. It follows not just Hen, but many characters as they uncover revelations about who the other really is. There is Mira, Matthew’s wife, who must eventually contend with her husband’s past. There is Matthew’s brother Richard, who constantly clashes with Matthew over women. There is Lloyd, Hen’s husband who she isn’t feeling particularly passionate about lately. The suspense begins to pick up from the get-go when he watches Hen look at the objects in his office, but it isn’t an action-packed-scene-a-minute affair. However, there is that too as the suspense and drama are interspersed with intense drama.
Matthew is a character that’s drawn in shades of gray. He’s not a good guy, but sometimes I wondered if I should be rooting for him. On the other hand, I was always on Hen’s side. Hen herself (I questioned her name; I can’t really see a woman–I think she was maybe in her thirties or forties?– being called “Henrietta” or “Hen” and not having my thoughts go to a Mother Goose-like character. On the other hand, she originally struck me as an older woman. Combined with her career-illustrating children’s books and making art–this is an interesting demographic not written about very often.) is said to be bipolar, which I think is a device to make her seem unreliable. However, she has no bipolar episodes throughout the novel except for a flashback. Observations on Matthew are usually brushed off as “her thoughts seemed weird, but she knew she wasn’t manic. This was actually real.” So one might wonder why this plot device is here in the first place. In this case, we didn’t really need an unreliable narrator anyway. Matthew is conniving enough that he can make her seem unreliable on his own.
I guessed the twist very early on in the novel. It is, arguably, not an original plot and the twist has been done before in famous works–not naming names. (Full disclosure: I also saw the exact same twist in a previous book, so maybe that’s why I guessed it easily. Many Goodreads reviewers, checked after I published this review, say that they were completely surprised. This is the second time this happened for me this year.) Unfortunately for the book, the clues are there, and not only within the text. One of the reasons I write my own summaries is because I occasionally don’t love the one that comes with the book. The book’s summary makes it seem like the novel is primarily Hen’s story, and it mostly is, for the first half. In the second, there is much more of a focus on Matthew and side characters. That was fine, though I wasn’t expecting it to go in so many directions.
However, there are major characters missing from the summary and that’s another reason why readers might catch onto the twist so quickly (or not…see above). Publishers should be wary of accidentally using these things to give away important information. Characters, on the other hand, seem to make realizations by making lucky guesses. Mira, for example, figures out her husband’s past because she sits in her room thinking about it years later. It would have been more satisfying for them to come across tangible evidence.
The second half of the book is also riddled with subplots that occasionally lost structure and that focused on many characters. There is a predictable one with Henrietta and her husband having marital problems, and another with Matthew fighting with his brother Richard. These were interesting, but at the same time, I wondered, where is this all going? The first half of the novel is solid with Hen dealing with living next to a murderer. But then we enter the second half, and I’m not sure where exactly the focus lies. What, exactly, is Matthew planning, and to who, and why? There was so much going on that I couldn’t tell…Mira’s business trip, Matthew’s friendship with Michelle, etc. Hen isn’t seen as much here, but Matthew’s brother is. I was also unclear on the brother’s motives–he’s not a great guy either. Does he just like to see women suffer, which is something I’ve seen recently? Is he getting revenge for something? Is he just a product of his abusive upbringing? (This, too, is a place where readers might guess the plot twist because it’s hard to tell how otherwise these issues fit into the story cleanly.)
Despite that, though, I was entertained and looked forward to seeing how things would end for Hen. This was dulled slightly by a fairly anticlimactic confrontation, but otherwise I was rooting for Henrietta and pleased (mostly) with how things ended. There was a final twist that truly put everything together that I didn’t guess, and I was glad for that. My main problem was mostly with the cluttered subplotting in the second half, which also led to my easily guessing what was really going on because there was only one logical explanation for including a certain storyline.
Still, Before She Knew Him is a worthy addition to a popular genre. There’s nothing particularly different here, but if you like suspense, give it a try. Despite the scattered plotlines, I think that at the end of the day, people who like the genre will find something to like if you’re looking to make your skin tingle.