Title: The Girl Before
Author: JP Delaney
Would you give up control over your life if it meant you could live in a super posh, extremely high-tech—and yet somehow surprisingly affordable—house?
The premise is intriguing. The writing isn’t half bad. And the book is definitely a page-turner. Yet, JP Delaney’s The Girl Before is a bit of a let-down.
Despite being touted as a thriller along the lines of Gone Girl, The Girl Before is a derivative mix of Fifty Shades of Grey (which was apparently “literary” inspiration for the book being reviewed), Daphne du Maurier classic Rebecca, 1991 Julia Roberts’-starrer Sleeping With the Enemy, and cyber-punk TV show Black Mirror, with a sprinkle of Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark, had Roark been any more psychotic.
There are other problems too; apart from the hackneyed title. For one, the denouement straddles the line between the obvious (if you’re a fan of “twisty” endings) and the incredulous (if you aren’t), and the final twist appears to have been included almost as an afterthought. Also, the role of Christian Grey is split between a megalomaniacal architect called Edward Monkton, and the house he built: the extremely minimalistic One Folgate Street, which also serves as the tritagonist to this story.
The other two protagonists—Emma, who once lived in the house, and Jane, who lives there now—narrate the novel in alternating chapters that tell of an eerie overlap between their lives at One Folgate Street. They look similar, are roughly the same age, comply with an absurd list of 200 rules (including one that says no books!) and put up with regular invasions of privacy, and they also begin relationships with the reclusive, kinky and controlling minimalist Monkton.
Except, of course, one of them—the girl before—is dead. We learn early enough that Emma is dead, and that Jane will likely attempt to find out what happened.
Thankfully, the women, although both dealing with tragedy at the beginning of their respective tenancies, turn out to have distinctly different personalities. Where Emma is slightly unstable and clingy, Jane is driven and forthright. Emma is the survivor of a break-in, and Jane is getting over the grief of stillbirth. And their relationships with Monkton have stark differences, often despite his best efforts. The speed at which Monkton moves into the house (with both women), especially given his let’s-keep-it-casual spiel about the “exhilarating purity of the unencumbered relationship” (to both women), serves as a conscious red flag to the reader and a point of departure in the parallel storylines.
The book takes turns being more sympathetic to some characters than others, allowing you to choose your own allegiances, for the most part—which makes Delaney’s twist in the denouement even more of a head-scratcher.
Secondary characters, while vaguely threatening, are still not enough distraction from Monkton and his award-winning granite paperweight, with the latter’s ability—in a 50 shades of creepy move—to cut off basic amenities until the tenant responds to questionnaires rife with snoopery.
The juxtaposition between Emma and Jane is one of two highlights of the book (the other being the delicious creepiness of the house itself). Yet, despite sharing with us their most intimate heartbreaks, Emma and Jane come across as mere acquaintances at best, even at the end of the book. You know of them, but do you really know them?
So, should you read The Girl Before? You could. It wouldn’t take a lot of your time, and you might even enjoy it, assuming you could suspend your disbelief for however long it takes to you read the 400-odd pages. And skim over the unconvincing sex scenes if you need to. They grate more than they should, especially once you’ve already acknowledged that the pseudonymous Delaney consciously looked towards Fifty Shades for this book.