Frances, in her thirties, works as a sub-editor on the books pages of the `Questioner'. She lives alone in her north London flat and appears to be a quiet and unassuming person, content to plod along in her job and resigned to the fact that her life is not what she would like it to be. But, underneath, Frances is not resigned or content; she is just patiently waiting for the right moment to change her life to present itself...
One bitterly cold winter's evening driving back to London from her parents' home, she encounters a car that has skidded from the road and is witness to the last few minutes of the driver's life. She later discovers the driver was Alys, the wife of the Booker Prize winner, Laurence Kyte, and when Alys's family ask to meet Frances, in order to ask her about Alys's last few moments, Frances sees this as a possible opportunity to improve her life.
Frances visits the Kytes in their beautiful Highgate home and sees a world of art and privilege of which she would love to be a part. Laurence Kyte, still handsome in his fifties, Laurence's son Teddy, in his twenties, and nineteen-year-old Polly, a rather needy drama student, are all comforted by Frances's rendition of Alys's last few moments and seeing an opportunity to ingratiate herself further with the family, she embroiders the truth somewhat. Whilst sitting with the family over a glass of wine, Frances sees that Polly's neediness might just be her route into the Kyte family; and through Polly, Frances may just find her way to Laurence which, of course, is her main aim.
As Frances becomes more involved with Polly, her boss at the `Questioner' impressed by Frances's friendship with the Kytes, puts some of the more prestigious assignments her way. In consequence, Frances gains entrance into the heady world of the London literati, and this is just where Frances feels she was meant to be. Frances now begins to wonder just how far she can go...
This is a clever, amusing and well written novel; beautifully observed, chilling, psychologically complex and gripping. An excellent debut novel by an interesting new writer - I shall certainly be looking out for Harriet Lane's next book.
Driving home one rainy January night Frances comes across a car crash and an injured woman whom she tries to comfort whilst awaiting the ambulance. A few days later she is contacted by the police – the family of the dead woman would like to meet her for “closure”, but Frances is reluctant to do this feeling there is little point. It is only when Frances discovers that the bereaved husband is a distinguished author she agrees to meet them. In a beautiful house in a desirable part of London she meets Laurence, and his two grown up children Polly and Teddy. Polly very quickly latches on to Frances who becomes a willing crutch; she has seen a life so different from her own humdrum existence as sub-editor for a newspaper, living in a one-bedroom flat, making dutiful visits to her dull, insipid parents. She feels invisible. Having seen how this family lives, she desperately wants to become part of it, and so begins her slow campaign, which begins when she accepts Polly’s invitation to Alys’s memorial. Frances is now in the right place at the right time and, most importantly, being noticed by the right people. Things begin to improve for her.
None of the characters is likeable in this slow-burner of a novel, but that is the author’s intention. Frances, in particular, is calculating and manipulative, determined to worm her way in this life of wealth and privilege. Laurence is weak having shunted all responsibility to Alys when she was alive. Polly and Teddy, over indulged from birth accept everything is life as their right, their entitlement and have no sense of responsibility at all. They move in circles that Frances has probably never even imagined. Having said that, it all works very well and makes for an uncomfortable read, as we’re so unused to female characters behaving in this way. Frances’ ruthless, manipulative behaviour made me squirm.
The writing is very good, the author’s prose is a joy to read; she has a very light, controlled style. I have read \Lane’s books the “wrong way round” having just read “Her”, her second book first, which I think is even better than this – full of tension and menace
Frances returning is returning to London and her job on the books page of a failing newspaper when she comes across a car that has crashed. Before she dies, Frances has a brief conversation with the woman inside, but this moment is the key she can use to change her life.
Frances visits the grieving family with the Family Liaison Officer and realises that the widower is a famous author, Laurence Kyte. From the moment she embellishes the last words Alys said,the scene is set, and Frances turns Laurence Kyte into a project.
As a reader I was unsure what Frances would do next, is she unhinged or just very manipulative? Her observations about family members along with those she meets through work are used ruthlessly to her advantage. Our cunning narrator keeps us informed of the plan and at times I found myself reluctantly admiring her whilst fearing what the outcome would be.
This is a fantastic study of human behaviour, the tawdry nature of networking and ambition but ultimately a fantastic read.
on 14 June 2014
The beautiful language in 'Her', Lane's second novel, intrigued me to get hold of this, her first. I read it in 24 hours. It is vividly written with rich sensory detail and the occasional, welcome, snarky wit.
It's been touted as a thriller, which is a shame because it certainly isn't one. It's a subtler, more credible cuckoo-in-the-nest tale of a woman who, bored of her own life, inveigles her way into a new one when extraordinary circumstances present themselves. It reminds me of the novels I loved 20-30 years ago by Muriel Spark or Margaret Drabble which I thought booksellers had stopped recognising as gripping.
What I loved most about this novel was how it was perpetually not what it seemed or what I expected it to be. If you analyse what Frances does, the majority of her actions are kind - she visits the family after Alys's death, supports the daughter, and at the end, engineers a reunion between the estranged family members. But she exacts her own specific rewards for all of this.
Her more reckless or brutal actions are easily credible - I've heard of far less being done in the throes of love - her light finger keepsakes, her accidental admissions - these are human touches, human frailties - most of us are guilty of something along similar lines when highly stirred but injected with a detached, methodical lack of emotion, they are so cold blooded. How Frances behaves seems chilling but she is no worse than those around her - all equally self-serving, back stabbing and greedy for life's prizes. The difference is, they have been trained from birth to act with egotistical abandon. There is something almost innocent in the machinations of Oliver or Mary, with whom Frances works at Questioner and of Poppy and honor, the young women whose lives Frances enters. Whereas Frances own hard nosed behaviour is learned through observation and when she belatedly puts their behavioural style to the test in her own life it is with (for her) pleasing results.
Her reward is a pyrrhic victory. She gets to become one among them, gets to tame one of them and claim him as her own. Not much of a catch, as she is dimly, uneasily aware in later pages of the novel, but nevertheless, a better life than what she had before.
So no, this is no thriller. It is a quiet, subtle examination of a mouse with sharp teeth - a great character portrait, stylish and compellingly written. If you wonder where those intelligent novels disappeared to which are wonderful shrewd observations of human life, the domestic forensic - this is one. I can imagine it becoming a classic - it so neatly defines a mood, an era, a social set with a way of life that is taken for granted by them while others look on in mystified envy.
I am surprised by all the rave reviews for this book, describing it as a chilling psychological thriller. As far as I can see there is nothing remotely thrilling or chilling about it.
The story is about Frances, a thirtysomething, who works for a newspaper in the Books section. We are given the impression that Frances is a bit of a nobody, a mousey insipid character, often overlooked. On her way home from a visit to her parents' home one night, she comes across a crashed car and an injured woman. Frances calls for an ambulance and waits with the woman until help arrives.
Later she learns that the woman died. She is told the woman was Alys Kyte, wife of a famous author. When she is contacted by the family of the dead woman, she first declines to meet them, wanting to put the event behind her, but gradually Frances spies an opportunity. Befriended by Alys's daughter, she inveigles herself into the family, enjoying dinner with them and weekends at their country home, setting her sights on the ultimate prize.
It's basically a story of a woman who spots an opportunity to better herself, and goes all out to reach her goal. It's quite subtle, and well written and easy to read. BUT, ultimately it seemed to lack something. Described as chilling and a thriller, I didn't find it to be either, there is no sense of menace or darkness. Frances has an agenda certainly but it is not particularly evil, or even bad, she has a plan but it is not something that many women wouldn't do. I have at least two friends I can think of that have done similar, and I don't consider them to be bad people, they operate differently to how I would, but as in Frances's case, they are merely opportunistic. I think the book would have benefitted from taking things a step further and adding something darker and more suspenseful.
It's an ok read, and fairly short at just over 200 pages, and I think if you are a regular reader of pyschological thrillers you would find it a bit lame, as I think suggesting it's a thriller is very misleading - it isn't.
A remarkably good read, this novel begins with a young woman, Frances, driving home and seeing the aftermath of an accident where another car has ploughed into the forest. She immediately stops and calls for an ambulance, but there are long disquieting minutes until it appears. Inside the car all she can see is a woman's arm, but she is evidently alive and talking fitfully, and even makes a joke about just having had the car cleaned. But, as Frances finds out later, she dies in the ambulance.
Frances works for a literary magazine as a sub-editor. She's a bit of a dogsbody, cleaning up the mistakes of less punctilious writers on the staff. As such she hardly moves in the same circles as the family whose mother it was who died. She is invited to meet the family and tells a white lie, saying that the dead woman told her to tell everyone that she loved them. The Kytes, consist now of the father, Lawrence, a successful writer, Polly, his daughter and Teddy, his son. Polly takes a shine to Frances and she is invited to various events which take place over the summer. Her connection with the Kytes moves her subtly up the social ladder and she is promoted at work. Frances, in fact, is quite coolly working her way into another world, where she doesn't have to live in her grotty flat in a downmarket neighbourhood.
Will she be successful, or will she be found out? How long can the connection with Polly be counted upon? What can she find out about Lawrence's past? How can she make herself indispensible to this well-heeled family? Read this book and find out. It's a brilliant and compulsive psychological chiller.
An overturned car in Wistleborough Wood, Frances Thorpe first on the scene - only she to hear the dying words of driver Alys Kyte. Frances grows close to the wealthy Kyte family. Can this be the stepping stone needed for her to rise from obscurity at the ailing Sunday "Questioner"? Frances narrates. Is she for real or simply skilfully manipulating? Readers will decide.
Common throughout is the concept of life as a facade. Frances' mother creates the impression of always being so busy. It is all an act. Colleagues at work seem convivial but secretly backbite and fear for their jobs. Smiles at social occasions are but a veneer - such events excruciating, crammed with inane small talk somehow to be endured.
Life's trials are here devastatingly pinpointed, with so much ringing true. For many this may prove an uncomfortable read. Are we there too, amongst people whom happiness eludes? Each day do we go through the motions of matters meaningful, whereas there is a great emptiness?
"A psychological thriller" as the publicity claims? Again readers will make up their own minds. Few can disagree, though, here is writing of a high order, full of telling detail and ominous undercurrents. Despite the wry humour, it is quite disturbing actually.
on 31 August 2012
Taking a break from this years Booker list which I've been rather disenchanted by, I turned to Harriet Lane's Alys Always which Amazon had been recommending to me for some time. I actually read this book really quickly, I had read over half of it before I realised it, so its a real page turner, not just an easy descriptor to use.
In this novel, protagonist Frances Thorpe appears to be a stereotypical loner, single, living alone, visiting her parents on weekends, and virtually invisible in her offices. Quiet, mousey, and uninteresting to those around her, Frances edits copy for the book component of a London newspaper.
One night driving home, she is the first on the scene of an accident and last to speak to the victim, a woman, "Alice", who then dies. This is, at first, an unusual diversion in a mundane life for Frances; but then the realisation comes that the "Alice" in question is Alys Kyte wife of literary giant Laurence Kyte.
What then follows is Frances Thorpe giving those reading her story a total masterclass in opportunism and social climbing as she inveigles her way in to the lives of the Kytes, through deceit, manipulation and flattery.
Frances, seems as you first read her words to be perfectly normal and then you realise by the little things she lets slip, her skewed views on things, and particularly by the way in which she studies the behaviour of everyone around her, calculating how best to win them over, what a sociopath she is.
I found it a bit tame that the one or two people who began to become suspicious of her were easily diverted or won over, I would have liked her to have had a bit more of a fight on her hands at least once.
It is odd, that though Frances is so devious, you find yourself rooting for her, I think this could be because nobody she's deceiving in her pursuit of better things is that likeable anyway. A modern day Becky Sharp, but without the same vivaciousness, Frances is a dark character and her closing lines give you the creeps. I did wonder whether Harriet Lane had encountered a Frances type in her own life and whether Alys, Always was intended as an expose or portrait of such manipulative, self interested Talented Mr Ripley type women. 8/10
on 16 December 2012
First, the book is masterful because the author NAILED the London book scene and the strange creatures who inhabit it. Second, she portrayed perfectly a certain kind of predator who abounds but rarely is the subject of a book. The book is thrilling because you are actually rooting for this heroine since everyone she becomes involved with is really very terrible. I have known so many people from privileged backgrounds like these characters, and again, she NAILED them. And the author holds the suspense together, no mean feat.
Of course, she is greatly indebted to Patricia Highsmith (one of the great mystery writers of all time and my goddess), but I say, don't imitate, STEAL. And Harriet Lane steals from the very best of them.
Mainly, however, it is just so damned good to get hold of a good read, a book you can't put down. So few of them nowadays. Thanks for that, Harriet.
I unreservedly loved this highly accomplished novel, which has one of the best unreliable narrators I've come across in ages - a story of manipulation told so beautifully that it's chilling. Frances remains peculiarly likeable throughout, despite the way she deceives her way into the lives of the Kite family after simply being present at the death of "Alice". The style reminded me tremendously of Zoe Heller, but maybe that had more to do with the echoes of Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal - but this was a really original and different read, with well drawn and far less likeable characters all seen through Frances' distorted lens. A wonderful short novel, and I'm eagerly awaiting the next one by Harriet Lane.