St. Martin’s Press | 2017
Opening Hook: Can’t a person just sit in their car anymore without being murdered?
Main Character: She is the Toby to my Michael Scott
Plot Twisty-ness: A predictable anxiety-fest
I’m pretty sure me and B.A. Paris need to break up.
I read and kind of enjoyed Behind Closed Doors, but I was not over the moon about it like most other reviewers were. Even now, when I think back on that reading experience the only things I remember are that 1) the main character was super annoying, and 2) *spoiler alert* it’s totally ridiculous to believe that a high-powered attorney who works 60+ hour weeks on huge cases, would also have enough time to be that on the fucking nose when it came to keeping his wife hostage.
You don’t want the things a reader remembers about your book to be just the illogical, annoying bits.
And I’m afraid The Breakdown is going to be another exercise in this for me.
B.A. Paris seems to have a habit of writing the most annoying female main characters – dumb, slow-on-the-upswing and insecure – who are married to the most obviously untrustworthy men. I can’t be the only one who is seeing the perfect, loving and thoughtful husband routine as completely shady? Maybe it’s because I’m married and 100% woke to the fact that even the most romantic of men are not going to be perfect. If they are, they are trying to bamboozle you, bitch!
So, basically what we’ve got here is Cass driving home one evening on a dark, twisty shortcut that is secluded, because of course it is. On her way, she sees a car parked with a woman inside. She considers checking if the woman needs help, but decides it’s too scary and dark and will call the police from home about the woman simply chillin’ in her car. As you would.
The next day, that woman is dead. Not just dead, murdered!
Cass begins to guilt-plague herself immediately. She makes this tragic event all about her because she didn’t stop to help (and totally forgot to call the police.) And maybe she had lunch with the victim one time! It comes across as such annoying, over-the-top self-flagellation that I wanted to punch Cass in the throat. I understand feeling bad, but there is a line that crosses into a version of Munchausen’s by Proxy – wherein you make a tragic event that happened to someone else all about you – and that definitely happened here. Cass became a snivelling, worrying martyr almost immediately and never took her foot off of that characterization gas.
Cass’ guilt is only ramped up when she starts receiving random crank calls and sees a man watching her outside her house. What’s more, she’s having trouble remembering things, and is pretty sure she’s starting to display symptoms of Early Onset Dementia, which is particularly frightening because her mother had Alzheimer’s.
Cass starts receiving items in the mail that she can’t remember buying, setting up appointments and dates that she doesn’t remember planning, and even gets wrapped up in self-harm that she can’t remember doing. By the time a more sinister event happens, despite feeling so certain it did, Cass immediately drops her certainty and starts to question herself and her memory, almost always chalking up a clue to the mystery as just losing her mind. In this way, there are no clues that are genuinely followed up on throughout most of the book and Cass’ anxiety-over-investigation attitude makes her seem weak.
These aspects of the book – this subtle attack of Cass – could have really worked for me if Cass hasn’t jumped into the “I hate myself! It’s all my fault!!!!” pool with both feet.
While the trope of “no one believes me but I swear I’m not crazy!” can be very frustrating for me to read, I am always drawn to these kinds of storylines because it’s supposed to be frustrating. The little things are supposed to be unsettling and sinister. You’re supposed to be feeling that desperation the character is feeling, getting amped up and ready for a fight and when the truth is revealed you get that same sense of satisfaction that the character gets.
But! It has to be done right. There is an art to this trope. And when the main character is already at an eleven emotionally from the beginning of the book and has no fight in her, it doesn’t work for me.
The main character has to be someone you like, someone you root for, someone who is clearly being fucked over so that you stick with them through the bullshit. If the main character is just always annoying and then this super annoying trope happens to her, it’s twice the amount of being annoyed and who wants to deal with that? It’s basic math. Google it.
The way The Breakdown is plotted means that all the eggs for the mystery are put in the “big reveal” basket. Most of the book is an anguished exercise in repetitive scenes (Cass being afraid of phones and deliveries,) and of never following any clues or instinct. The cast of characters is so small though, that it leaves very little options for suspects and it becomes pretty obvious rather quickly what is happening because the characterization and dialogue choices are very heavy-handed.
The character development never really moves passed surface information and continued annoying traits. It has soap-opera-like dramatics and because of this the things that happen to Cass which are supposed to seem sinister, start to seem silly in comparison. OMG WHO ORDERED ME THIS $2000 PRAM FOR THE BABY I’M NOT PREGNANT WITH!? YOU MONSTER!
That’s basically the tone.
A lot of people liked this book, and I’m in the minority with my review of it, so there are reasons to read it outside of what I personally think. Obviously, everything comes down to how deep you take novels and writing, and subjectively what you think makes a novel great. Personally, for me, I think this was a rather obvious, lame plot with a super annoying main character and I can’t even with those choices. But perhaps you’ll think much differently.
However, given that this is yet another attempt I’m making with B.A. Paris that didn’t work out, I think it’s probably best if she and I part ways. I’d say, “it’s not you, it’s me,” but I’m not totally sure that’s accurate.
Cass is having a hard time since the night she saw the car in the woods, on the winding rural road, in the middle of a downpour, with the woman sitting inside—the woman who was killed. She’s been trying to put the crime out of her mind; what could she have done, really? It’s a dangerous road to be on in the middle of a storm. Her husband would be furious if he knew she’d broken her promise not to take that shortcut home. And she probably would only have been hurt herself if she’d stopped.
But since then, she’s been forgetting every little thing: where she left the car, if she took her pills, the alarm code, why she ordered a pram when she doesn’t have a baby.
The only thing she can’t forget is that woman, the woman she might have saved, and the terrible nagging guilt.
Or the silent calls she’s receiving, or the feeling that someone’s watching her…