Book Review: Shutter by Melissa Larsen

Shutter by Melissa Larsen is a chilling debut novel about a young woman who agrees to star in a filmmaker’s latest project but soon realizes the movie is not what she expected.

Betty Roux is a young woman running from her recent past. Sleeping on her friends’ couch in New York City, she has vague aspirations of becoming an actress but spends most of her days walking dogs and thinking about auditioning instead of doing anything concrete toward attaining that goal. So when her friends, married couple Ben and Sophia, offer to introduce her to hotshot director Anthony Marino, she passively goes along, not expecting much to come of it. In characteristically contrary fashion, she’s pretending to her friends that she’s never seen Reverence, the movie that propelled Anthony to stardom. Truth is she loves the movie, loves the self-portrait Anthony created and starred in, but refuses to admit this to anyone for reasons of her own.

Anthony himself hasn’t created anything professionally since his debut. According to Ben, who worked with him on Reverence, it’s because he’s been looking for the perfect actress for his next feature. Betty doesn’t really think she could be the one he’s looking for, but he’s apparently drawn to the image she’s projecting of someone ignorant of his fame. And Betty, in turn, is mesmerized by this man who’s unlike anyone she’s ever met.

So maybe I’m light-headed because this is a dream. Maybe the stink of the city doesn’t have that much to do with it. Maybe it’s because I’m standing out here with this man who can turn my lie into a truth. Like water into wine. And there is something compelling about him. Something mesmerizing. How relaxed he is. As I followed him through the dark bar, out onto the street, I couldn’t help but watch how he moved. That slow, loose gait. Ben and Sofia suddenly seem like mannequins compared to him. They act like they’ve figured out something no one else our age has yet—blissful, comfortable love—but they’re uncertain. Their smiles are bolted on. They worry about everything, like it might all be taken away from them, everything they have, at any moment. And I’m no different.

Anthony’s supreme self-assurance sweeps Betty along to where she’ll agree to anything in exchange for a chance to star in his movie. It doesn’t help that she’s more naive than she lets on. Yes, she’ll be in his film script unseen; yes, she’s okay with nudity and violence. Soon, she and Anthony—along with Ben and Sophia—are heading off to Anthony’s remote family home off the Maine coast in order to start filming. Along the way, they pick up the other star of Reverence, Mads Byrne, who’s been cast as Betty’s boyfriend. Except, in a break from everyone else’s norm, Betty has to go by Lola instead of her real name while in production.

As things get weirder and weirder, Betty begins to feel isolated from the rest of the cast and crew, who all seem to know more about what’s going on than she does. Anthony reluctantly tells her that the movie is meant to be a meditation on fear and that all she has to do is to act natural while mics and cameras hidden all over the Marino estate capture the footage that he’ll later edit and splice to make his film. But he also tells her that he just wants her to relax and have a good time and that he would never knowingly put her in danger—words that are never as comforting as they’re meant to be. Poor Betty is constantly on edge.

In the silence that follows, I feel the weight of everyone’s gaze on me. The more I think about it, though, the more confused I feel. Where is the tension in a party among a few good friends? And what bugs me the most is that it feels as though Anthony’s keeping whatever danger is supposedly lurking out here in the woods from me. Is Mads going to attack me or something? Is Anthony? Is there a monster out here in this forest? Another actor I don’t know about? Why am I the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on?

When Anthony’s plot finally kicks into high gear, Betty has to decide what she’s willing to do in order to protect not only her dreams of stardom but also her very life. But who is the real monster here, and whom among them will be willing to kill in order to achieve their darkest desires?

This deconstruction of the Cape Fear movies—with more than a hint of Audition—is a modern re-interpretation of the classic revenge and escalation fantasy told from the point of view of the woman caught in the middle of it all. I greatly empathized with Betty’s rage and lack of purpose even as I kept wanting to yell at her “girl, noooo!” as she made one poor choice after another. Perhaps it is because I am older and wiser now—as Betty constantly wishes in the narrative that she were too—than I was in my own hopeful, starstruck early 20s, but everything about Anthony screamed, “It’s a trap,” or at least sleazy “acting” school to me. So it was a pleasant surprise to see Betty’s layers unravel to reveal a strong, steely heroine within.

I don’t necessarily think Shutter hits all the emotional and intellectual highs it’s aiming for, but I do think this is a very interesting examination and subversion of the typical machismo that underpins a lot of modern American entertainment. As this is Melissa Larsen’s debut, it will be intriguing to see what ideas she explores with her next novel, which I’m certain will be just as thoughtful if not more so.

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