Book Review: The Safe Place by Anna Downes
I’m pretty sure Anna Downes’ The Safe Place will be this summer’s quintessential beach read. An intelligent page-turner featuring beautiful, flawed people in glamorous surroundings with a ripped from the headlines twist, this is the perfect novel for those on a getaway or, given the interesting times we live in, those longing for a getaway.
Emily Proudman is a down on her luck actress struggling to make it in London while holding down a series of temp jobs. She’s not very good at either acting or temp work, and a perfect storm of circumstances causes her to lose her latest job, her agent and her apartment in rapid succession. Her relationship with her parents is strained, and she doesn’t have a lot of friends, so when the CEO at her last workplace offers her a golden opportunity, she has little reason to say no.
Scott Denny has it all. As the head of an innovative investing firm, he’s rolling in millions, and is well known for his philanthropic efforts. His beautiful wife and daughter live in a secluded estate in France, but there’s always something at work to keep him away from Querencia. He knows that Nina needs help out there, though, and thinks he might have found all the solutions to his problems with Emily. But first, a few subtle tests:
He asked [his assistant] to relay a few random requests, assign some tasks that he knew Emily had already completed, just to see if she would do them again. She did. He asked her to go outside at a specific time every day for a week and take a photograph of the building at the end of the block. She went. He emailed her the password for an absent junior’s desktop computer and instructed her to access a file marked PRIVATE. She raised no objections. She was so eager to please that she complied with every order without hesitation.
Once he’s decided that Emily’s the perfect candidate, he offers her an obscene amount of money to move to France to help out his wife for the summer. Emily has little reason to stay in London, so happily signs the NDA, grabs the proffered black card and heads for the Continent. She’s somewhat taken aback by the remoteness of the location, then intimidated by the sheer beauty of first, the place, then of Nina.
Nina, for her part, wholeheartedly welcomes the younger woman:
The hug came as a surprise, and Emily hesitated before returning it, uncertain how she should interpret the pressure around her shoulders, the unfamiliar fingers at her back. Then, from out of nowhere, she was overcome by a brief, wondrous falling sensation, as if Nina was pulling her over a precipice; a feeling that, as the hug dragged on, gave way to discomfort[.]
And then it felt as though she was no longer being pulled but pushed, as if Nina was pressing her whole weight into her, crushing her, gripping her like she was the only anchor in an endless sea.
Nina is clearly lonely at Querencia, with only her daughter Aurelia and man-of-all-work Yves to keep her company. She and Emily quickly fall into a comfortable, companionable groove of hard work and extended leisure time, with only a few rules. The family house is off-limits to Emily, who lives in the guest house. With no cell service in their remote location, Emily must ask Nina for use of the land line, which has a habit of working poorly. Aurelia must be protected, from the sun, from shocks, from any discomfort, at all costs.
Read More: Excerpt of The Safe Place
At first, Emily is just so thrilled to have a cool job she actually enjoys that she doesn’t notice anything wrong. But cracks slowly begin to appear in the Denny family’s carefully constructed facade, and a weekend visit from Scott finally forces Emily to confront the fact that something sinister is going on here. Will she be able to uncover the truth, and will she survive what she discovers?
This was a terrifically written thriller that had me up for hours because I needed to know what was going to happen next. I never quite knew what to expect, but I was so wholly satisfied by the outcome, especially after the spooky, near vertiginous territory the book trod partway through the narrative. Beach reads can be hit or miss for me but The Safe Place avoids the genre’s typical flaws by stressing sympathetic characterization and some really smart narrative choices. Ms. Downes is a talented thriller writer who’s crafted an outstanding debut with this novel.