Book Review: The Stranger Inside by Lisa Unger

The Stranger Inside

Lisa Unger

September 17, 2019

Lisa Unger’s new book explores the way humans deal with the horrors of the world, and what happens when those horrors push us too far. 

At first glance, the protagonist of this book, Rain Winter, seems like a normal new mother. She is nervous about her baby girl, she is fraught with stress, and she is constantly trying to deal with something many new mothers struggle with–how to be both, or how to be everything: A good mother, a good worker, a home-maker, and a fit, beautiful, attentive partner. Needless to say, she cracks under the pressure a bit. 

Before motherhood, Rain worked for a major news station alongside her best friend. She loved it, and she was great at it, but then she got pregnant. Rain and her husband, Greg, agreed she would stay home with their new child. But now that the daughter, Lily, is nearly a year older, and the news has gotten a bit darker and a bit closer to home, Rain finds herself simultaneously itching to get back to work and sinking under the guilt and pressure new moms face when they decide to pursue their career. Was she abandoning her family if she went back to work, was she losing herself if she didn’t? This common quandary is best described by Rain’s best friend and former coworker, Gillian: 

“Women make choices… We must. Do you want a Pulitzer prize? Or do you want a happy kid? Men don’t have to make these decisions. There aren’t as many judging eyes on them.”

Rain is constantly torn between the choices. But you slowly realize Rain is a lot more than what she seems, more than a conflicted mother or a hard-working reporter. You learn, almost immediately, that she had been the victim of an attempted kidnapping when she was young, one that left her in shock and hiding in a hollowed out tree and also ruined the life of her childhood best friends, Hank and Tess. Hank survived, but he never really healed from the psychological wounds inflicted during the incident, and Tess died, tragically and brutally. But Rain made it out relatively unscathed, with only a few scars, both physical and mental. Nothing compared to Hank, and certainly nothing compared to Tess. But nothing was ever the same. After spending her childhood wracked with guilt and despair over the loss of both her best friends (Hank moved away after the incident and he and Rain lost touch), Rain decides, as a young adult, to put the entire thing behind her. With the help of her husband Greg, her imperfect father, and lots of therapy, it seems as if Rain succeeds, for a while.

However, the deluge of emotions brought on by being a new mother dredged up raw memories and old cravings, and the combination wreaks havoc through her present life. This leads to her to making some pretty risky choices, often putting herself and sometimes her family in danger. Chapters flip from Rain’s perspective to Hank’s, who moved back to their town after school, and the reader watches the childhood friends morph into unrecognizable characters as they draw closer to one another in the depths of their shared trauma and their search for justice, or their idea of it. 

This book was enjoyable, and the plot was lightning fast. However, the story was riddled with random complaints that threw me off completely. Though relatively young, the characters constantly griped about things you’d expect to hear from a grandparent at a holiday dinner. Within the first paragraph there was one that caused me to roll my eyes and brace myself: 

It’s a school night, so no kids playing flashlight tag, no pick-up soccer match in the street. Maybe kids don’t even do that anymore. That’s what I understand anyway. That they’re all iPad-addicted couch potatoes now. It’s the new frontier of parenting.

After reading that my hopes for the book sunk. Luckily, I was wrong overall, but there are still tons of random remarks  like this, ones that don’t really seem to fit with the characters. To me, these comments seemed pointless and out of place. I wish they had been left out.

However, the book also offered many reflections on life, growth and strength. Almost every character presented had something traumatic happen to them at one point or another, so these comments are welcome and, more importantly, they meshed well with the plot and narrative. Growth and change is something Rain wrestles with every single day. So the following excerpt from her perspective is perfect:

What does it mean to be strong? To be brave? When she was young, she thought she knew the answers to those questions. It was easy–you didn’t back down from a fight, you defended your friends. You got up on stage to deliver your speech about recycling even though your stomach was queasy, and your voice shook at first. You didn’t cry when you fell off your bike. Later, it came to mean something different.

The book is filled with reflections like this one, but despite both of the characters being so caught up with the concept of growing and shedding old skin, you don’t see real change within them until the very end of the book.

Despite his flaws, some of my favorite chapters were the ones told from Hank’s perspective. The voice lent to him was strong and powerful, and there was real emotion in his struggle between the Hank he used to be, before that unspeakable day of the kidnapping, and the Hank he was now. His character was very well-written, a fully formed creature unlike some minor characters, such as Gillian’s ex and Rain’s contact for all the dirt on local crime, Christopher. His character appears at such random intervals, only popping up when it’s convenient for the characters and plot. 

Other than Christopher, though, there are also minor characters who are full of wisdom. There is Sandy, Tess’ mother. She is peaceful and kind, resilient and tough. Her small scenes lent a great deal of depth to the book. Greta, an elderly bird watcher, similar to Sandy, plays an important role as well, presenting the peace and goodness of nature as an alternative to the destructive tendencies of humans. Both of these characters were a more than welcome comfort from the harsh realities presented in the novel, and I found myself wishing they’d pop up in the story again.

Overall, I recommend this book for a fast, thrilling read!

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