The Guilty One, by Sophie Littlefield *****

Sophie Littlefield, author of the Bad Day series (A Bad Day for Sorry, etc) has hit a new level of excellence with The Guilty One. Many thanks to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the DRC! This book goes up for sale on August 11, and if you love a good novel, this one is for you.

Our chief protagonists are Maris and Ron. Maris is Calla’s mother…or she was. Calla is dead now. The court has convicted Karl of her murder, a heartbroken, enraged loss of control over a bad teenage breakup. Ron is Karl’s father, and as we open our first setting, he is considering jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. At the last minute he decides to phone Maris, and ask her whether to jump or not.

theguiltyoneIt shows a good deal about Ron’s character, weak and lacking in integrity, that he not only phones Karl’s victim’s mother to dump the responsibility on her, but also wears a windbreaker to the bridge because his travel guide mentions that it is cool and windy there, even in warm weather.

The last time I read Littlefield’s work, it was the Bad Day series. The first book won multiple awards and was deeply satisfying, a savvy, witty dig at domestic abuse. The same topic enters this discussion in a more oblique fashion. In her earlier series, she seemed to lose momentum as the series unfolded, and it appeared to me that she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to write a series that was mostly of the detective fiction genre, or mostly romance. Here, she has taken a giant step away from mystery and detective fiction, and this straight-up fictional story is told with grace, maturity, and authority. It’s obvious right there in the first few pages. I was reading a handful of galleys at the time, and my first note to myself was “See now, this is good writing.”

Maris has lost her marriage, and at first it appears to be a consequence of Calla’s death—so few couples can experience the death of a child and stay together—but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that a split was in the works long before this. And Maris makes a decision that resonates with me. She drops everything and everyone, more or less, and without thinking, going purely on instinct, starts over in a new place, with a greatly reduced standard of living. At first I wonder whether Maris is merely slumming, seeing how the other half lives, but deep down, I have to trust Littlefield not to do anything so shabby, and she doesn’t. Maris is the one we root for, the one that drives the plot forward and pulls us in.

Ron and Deb have stayed together as Karl has gone through the trial and been found guilty, but the strain is there. Ron starts out entirely believable and not very likeable. He never becomes the stand-up individual that Maris is, but he is a dynamic character, complicated and interesting. He undergoes a lot of change as the story progresses.

Throughout this riveting novel, there was never a moment when the veil lifted and I recalled that these characters weren’t real. I raced toward the end with a sense that I had to see how it came out, and then when it was over, I felt a sense of loss, wanting to turn another page and find Maris still there so I could check in with her, like a good friend. And that is ultimately the hallmark of great writing.

Get online. Take a bus. Get in the car. Hijack a plane—okay, maybe not—but do what you need to do in order to get a copy of this accessible, compelling new fiction. Littlefield rocks it. You can pre-order it now, so you will be able to read it right away. If you do, you too will want to stand up and cheer!

Among the Ten Thousand Things, by Julia Pierpont *****

amongthetenthousandJack is an artist living in New York City. Sometimes he sleeps in the apartment where he lives with his family. Sometimes he sleeps in his studio, when his work is really going strong. Just as sometimes he sleeps with his wife, whereas sometimes, he sleeps with whoever. This story is about the fallout that occurs when one of the random women he has taken up with, then discarded comes back with a vengeance, and though she intends to punish Jack through his wife, instead she ends up punishing him and his wife through their children, who are the unhappy recipients of the series of randy e-mails the woman he’s just jettisoned prints up and delivers to his building. My god, my god. And before I go farther, let me say thank you to Net Galley and Random House for allowing me a sneak peek. This book will be published next month.

Jack and his latest-fling have been prolific writers, it seems. It takes a large, somewhat weighty box to hold all the hideous missives that have passed between the two of them. And though it’s a rotten thing he’s done to his wife Deb, it slips out early on that she has married him only after dating him while he was married to someone else. Hey, what goes around, comes around.

Unfortunately, Jack is sufficiently garrulous enough with his recent conquest that he shares his children’s names with her, and when eleven year old Kay accepts the box to take upstairs, she is thinking that it is nearly her birthday, and perhaps what is inside is a gift that she can’t wait two weeks to know about. And then one of the papers on top of the pile has her name on it. It isn’t underlined, nor in bold or colored ink, but one’s name tends to jump out at one. And so the steamy sex talk she is way too young to see in any context whatsoever is accompanied by the sentence, “I know about Kay.”

It’s almost enough to permanently traumatize a kid. Well, maybe we can forget that “almost”.

The events are so horrible that any sensible reader would turn away rather than face what comes next, but Pierpont has a fresh, immediate writing style that pulls one in, almost to the extent that we care about those kids as if they were our own. We keep reading because we have to know what happens to them.

Several times I grew angry enough with Jack that I found myself senselessly typing angry retorts into my kindle comments. Nobody sees that stuff but me, but typing seemed better than waking my spouse to inveigh against this self-absorbed asshole, this swine who has the nerve at first to blame Kay for reading mail not meant for her eyes. Oh please!

And when Deb equivocates, I want to smack her, too. Sure, I know I said that what goes around comes around, but once you have children, the whole equation is altered, and you have to act immediately on their behalf. She feels a little sorry for Jack at first, at the alienation his children display toward him, and I just want to shake her. Don’t feel bad for him, the pig! Feel bad for your kids! Hello?

The kids are really what the book is all about, what makes it worth reading. They aren’t little big-eyed Holly Hobbie dolls, but both innocent and insolent, naughty and adorable, disturbed, devastated, and resilient as well. They flounder; they struggle. And when the story ends, the spell isn’t really broken until one accepts that they are fictional, because believe me, the whole thing feels so very real.

Pierpont is a damn good writer. She will be a force to be reckoned with in the literary world, a writer to watch. I can’t wait to read whatever is next!
As for you, you should get this novel when it comes out July 7. Maybe you should even reserve yourself a copy. What a fascinating book, by a strong new author.