Book Review: The Perfect Guests by Emma Rous
By Janet WebbJanuary 18, 2021
Be careful what you wish for, you may receive it. – W. W. Jacobs, English author (1863-1943).
Both Beth Soames and Sadie Langton have their wishes come true but afterward, life is never the same. Note to readers: The Perfect Guests pays meticulous attention to seemingly extraneous details—consider this a major spoiler alert.
July 1988. When she was thirteen-years-old, Beth lost her parents and brother in a tragic car accident. Her frosty aunt Caroline didn’t invite the newly orphaned teenager to live with her, so she ended up in a children’s home. One day Caroline drives Beth to Raven Hall, a stunning house in the country. Raven Hall is set in the Fens, a coastal plain in eastern England. It’s a geographical and historical area that will be familiar to readers of Dorothy L. Sayers The Nine Tailors.
Geographically the Fens are situated mostly in the English county of Cambridgeshire. The region is known for its tranquil beauty, but with moody weather and sometimes peculiar inhabitants, it can be a treacherous environment where a watery end is always a possibility. A great setting for a crime novel…
Beth is to be a summer companion to Nina, a young girl her age. When they arrive at Raven Hall, she is so nervous:
Caroline, for once, offered no spiky words of advice. I squeezed the door handle with clammy fingers, holding my breath and gazing back at Nina. She wasn’t smiling. Did she hate this idea of her parents’? Would Caroline end up driving me—her jaw tight, her knuckles a furious white on the steering wheel—straight back to the children’s home before today was over?
But the girls do become friends and Beth’s fears of being summarily returned to the children’s home recede. Nina’s parents, Leonora and Markus, are somewhat over-protective: although the girls are permitted to swim and boat on the estate’s lake, they are forbidden to walk to the little village a few miles away. Beth is troubled by that but she’s so relieved to be part of a family, she tamps down her anxieties. One day Leonora and Markus ask Beth to do them a little favor. Nina is sick, just when her grandfather has arrived from the United States to visit her. Will Beth pretend to be Nina?
Leonora and Markus has done so much for me; of course I’d do what they asked, even though it sounded bizarre.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll try my best.”
“You’re an angel.” Leonora placed her hand over mine. “Thank you. And don’t look so worried. Just think of it as—a little game.”
Over the next few years, the scenario repeats itself, making Beth not only uncomfortable but suspicious—why does Nina fall ill every time her grandfather is scheduled to visit? Isn’t that rather sinister? Mostly Beth feels like a member of the family but one day everything falls apart. There’s a fire at Raven Hall and Markus dies in a tragic accident.
January 2019. Struggling actress Sadie Langton is going through a bad patch. Her agent Wendy can’t seem to get her a commercial gig (even to play a mermaid!) and things are looking rather dire. Then Wendy suggests an alternative.
“But listen. I’ve got much better news—a fabulous job offer for you. It’s a murder mystery company, just starting up, and they want to act out a trial run of the game so they can take photos for their website—glamorous costumes at a posh dinner party, that sort of thing. It’s out in a big old mansion in the Fens—gorgeous-looking place, full of dark history . . .”
Sadie straightens, the mermaid commercial already forgotten. “Sounds interesting. When’s the audition?”
“That’s the best bit, Sadie. There’s no audition. The job’s yours if you want it, and the money is excellent.”
Wendy reads Sadie the words of the actual invitation card: “‘You are cordially invited to play a Game at Raven Hall’ . . .” It’s an echo of what Leonora said to Beth so many years ago: “Just think of it as—a little game.” Neither Beth nor Sadie is moored to a stable family, they only have peripheral relationships. Financial and emotional insecurity are facts of life until they are “rescued”, although their rescue brings worries and danger in its wake.
A terrific follow-up to The Au Pair, The Perfect Guests is a perfect puzzle involving a house, a family, and the people who come into their orbit. Prepare to be surprised at the twists and turns. Emma Rous writes about generational family secrets like nobody’s business.