Review: Poison by Galt Niederhoffer

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Published: 21 November 2017

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Category: Psychological Thriller/Mystery

Poison is a literary psychological thriller about a marriage that follows minor betrayal into a bubbling stew of lies, cruelty, manipulation, and danger.

Cass and Ryan Connor have achieved family nirvana. With three kids between them, a cat and a yard, a home they built and feathered, they seem to have the Modern Family dream. Their family, including Cass’ two children from previous relationships, has recently moved to Portland —a new start for their new lives. Cass and Ryan have stable, successful careers, and they are happy. But trouble begins almost imperceptibly. First with small omissions and white lies that happen daily in any marital bedroom. They seem insignificant, but they are quickly followed by a series of denials and feints that mushroom and then cyclone in menace.

With life-or-death stakes and irreversible consequences, Poison is a chilling and irresistible reminder that the closest bond designed to protect and provide for each other and for children can change in a minute.

Rating: 1 Star

Caution: marital rape/sexual assault scenes

The premise of Poison sounded like it would make for a rather good thriller. Tense moments, mystery, a life-or-death situation…these elements appear in many a good book and I thought I would find the same here. I found that to be rather far off the mark in this instance.

The book starts off rather pompously, with over exaggerated language to describe the family unit and what it’s members do to ensure survival. It was a bit off putting, almost condescending, as the author/narrator pontificate about the perfect system that is a family, how everyone has to follow the rules or the unit crumbles. As this wasn’t being said by a member of the Connor family, I felt like this prologue was more preachy than necessary.

The manner in which the story progresses felt very much like the copy for a documentary on the modern family. As the reader, I didn’t sink into the story as usual, but felt like I was peering in at the Connors as one might look at an aquarium, complete with narration from some omnipotent being.

In another writer’s hands I might have been able to sympathize with the Connors, see them as a family that is tired in their routine, but generally alright. There was no time to come to that point in Poison. From the start all I got was a deep sense of co-dependency, of the author stretching out the details like an overextended rubber band.

I didn’t much care for how Cass, the matriarch, was portrayed. It’s stated early on that grief had made her dull and boring, grief for her first husband that died of an extended illness. This didn’t come across as a personal belief that Cass held, but rather a dismissive opinion of the author or, as I mentioned before, the narrator of the documentary that is the Conner family. The problem is, with the way she’s treated early on, it makes it difficult to like her midway through when normally I would have been sympathetic, maybe even sincerely worried about her. Building that foundation was essential for a story like this and I didn’t get that.

There were also snide, sexist remarks about Cass’s “true calling”: picking up after her children, not the career she’s had for years in legal journalism and as a journalism professor. Again, this might not be so bad if it felt like the character’s desire, but the way in which that passage in particular came across as the author breaking into their own story and remarking upon what they think is the “proper place for women”.

There was a chapter when, describing her narcissistic, egotistical, misogynistic father than Cass seems to rebel against his more dated ideas, to pity or mock them, but these protests felt like a puppet speaking from a script because, as I’d seen prior to this point, she is encumbered by these notions more than she admits. This is either a result of falling back on familial comforts or the author trying to portray Cass one way, but letting their own opinions shine through despite that.

It wasn’t consistent, either. One moment things seemed decidedly old-fashioned, the next Cass was going on about how modern Ryan was, how he didn’t wholly subscribe to traditional genders roles by being both able to construct floors and cool a good meal. There was always this undercurrent of falling back on a more 1950’s world view, but the narrative going forward couldn’t make up its mind.

Ryan wasn’t a good character either, though in his case I strongly disliked him because of his constant gaslighting of Cass. I was frustrated with Cass because she allowed it, accepted that this was how things were, and instantly forgiving him despite acknowledging that he was turning his fault into a criticism of her and her “failures”.

No one in the book seems to realize the privilege they have either. Though it’s never stated, I assume the family is white because of how they behave and remarks made about things in their life, such as the Victorian house they inhabit. The narration indicates that it’s “an example of what can be attained with hard work, a little luck— and a low-interest mortgage.” That’s not all there is to it and yet not one person recognizes the advantages they have because of who they are as well as what they’ve accomplished.

Home aside, they also have hired help within the home and children in multiple activities that require a good deal of money to attend, the ability to have these things never seeming worthy of note by either the family or the author. It was frustrating because the book is built around their achievement of a sort of familial nirvana, but there’s no recognition for getting there or being able to get there.

Cass even ticks off the things she has, the privileges of middle class wealth, at one point and instead of noting that she is fortunate enough to have these things both because of her person and her accomplishments, she waves them off as comforts she can count on, as though they were marks on a map or ladder that everyone aspires to follow or climb.

There was a careless comment thrown in about Cass being a “sleep anorexic” that rubbed me the wrong way. Eating disorders are nothing to joke about and the author using this phrase was unsettling because it felt like it diminished the severity of a person with anorexia and made Cass’s insomnia a flippant thing. The way Cass talks about her self-diagnosis was really bewildering because it sounded like something an anorexic person might say when in denial about what their disease is doing to them: bragging about how little they need, how much better they are than others because they can do more on less than their peers.

An oddity I noticed, especially concerning Marley (the new babysitter), was that the timing and order of events was off for some things. In Marley’s case, when they first meet Cass finds out that she’s 24, but later Marley says, when speaking of her personal illness, that she was 12 in 1984. That would make her at least 45 since the book takes place in 2017. These inconsistencies don’t seem to be because of paranoia, as Cass’s husband might suggest, but perhaps a bit of carelessness in the writing.

The formatting was a bit awkward in the book and I don’t think it was because it was an ARC. The transitions from scene to scene were very abrupt. One line to the next you might find yourself, formerly in the Connor house, then all of a sudden in a restaurant in Seattle proper, with nary a line split to really set things apart.

As for the pacing…with all the issues that kept coming up, along with the strange writing style considering this is pitched as a thriller/mystery, I found myself wondering when something would actually happen. Even when things did pick up, around 30%, it was a rather random acceleration of events, like 0 to 60 in three seconds. The whiplash did not endear me to the characters or the story.

For long expanses of time I found myself uninterested because nothing was really happening. The family troubles, which could have made for some kind of drama, were flat and, written as they were documentary style, had no real rising action that I could find. When Cass begins to suspect Ryan of indiscretions, it wasn’t written in an engaging manner. It was like a textbook case being displayed on the page. No humanity to the words, really, just the blunt statement of “fact”.

The ending was unsatisfactory in that, despite all the troubles and legal complications stacked against her, Cass was able to solve the case to the authorities’ satisfaction rather quickly. It didn’t seem real or possible, considering what the courts and the police had thought of her moments ago. There was also the matter of the story not really being resolved. The reader is more given a foot on the path to the end rather than a definitive conclusion.

I wouldn’t recommend this because of the lack of interesting content and the problems that arose from sexism, gaslighting, and the cycle of repetitive interactions between the two main characters.

 

 

 

 

 

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

All media (pictures, quotes, etc.) belong to the respective owners and are used here solely for the purpose of review and commentary.

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