The Breakdown by B. A. Paris is the next chilling, propulsive book from the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Behind Closed Doors (available July 18, 2017).
It all begins on a dark and stormy night—a good night to try and get home fast. Despite warnings from her husband to take the longer-but-safer route, Cass decides to take a shortcut. With the rain beating against her windshield, it’s hard to see the road in front of her. She barely sees the car stopped on the side of the road, but when she does, she pulls over briefly and waits to see if the driver will come over to her. When the driver remains in her car, Cass moves on.
The next day, the news breaks: a woman has been murdered. A woman in a parked car on the side of the road. A woman Cass passed by. A woman Cass knows.
The Breakdown is the second psychological bombshell by B. A. Paris. Her first, Behind Closed Doors, was a rollercoaster exploration of a very dysfunctional marriage. So upping the ante in her sophomore effort is a difficult challenge—one that Paris rises to.
The plot is simple enough on the surface: a woman is killed in Cass’s neighborhood, and the murderer is on the loose. Will the cops catch him? Did he see Cass when she pulled over? Did he follow her home? And is he the one calling every morning, breathing, and then hanging up? But Paris takes the whodunit one step further: Cass’s mother suffered from early-onset dementia, and it looks like Cass may be suffering the same thing.
She forgets little things like when her husband should be home or a lunch date with her best friend. She orders things on the shopping network that she doesn’t remember ordering. She loses her car in parking lots. But is Cass really suffering from the same dementia as her mother? Or is something more sinister at work?
Gaslight, the 1944 movie based on the play Angel Street and starring Ingrid Bergman, helped coin the term “gaslighting”: psychologically manipulating a person into questioning their own sanity. As I read through this novel, the term kept repeating itself in my head … but I had no idea who was being gaslighted. Was it me, the reader, or the characters? Is Matthew, Cass’s husband, gaslighting her for some reason? Is Cass gaslighting him? And what does all the lying and misdirection have to do with a poor woman’s murder?
*turns page again*
Cass is the very definition of “unreliable narrator.” She speaks with authority on some things but is quite questionable on others. There were times when I knew she said something—like ordering a shed for her husband—and I believed it to be true. But then a baby stroller is delivered instead, and I don’t know if she really ordered it because Cass doesn’t know if she really ordered it.
The whole situation is kind of funny really.
“Surprise!” I say as he comes into the room.
He looks at me in puzzlement. “So it's not some kind of joke then?”
“No, of course not,” I say, taken aback by his lack of enthusiasm. “Why would it be?”
He sits down on the edge of the bed. “I just don't understand why you’ve bought one now.”
“Because I thought it would be a nice gesture?”
“I still don’t understand.”
He looks so bewildered that my good humor evaporates fast.
“It’s your birthday present!”
He nods slowly. “Right. But why is it for me? Surely it should be for both of us?”
“Why? I’m hardly going to use it, am I?”
“Because you’re the one that’s been banging on about having one! But it doesn’t matter. If you don’t want it, I’ll send it back.”
“I’ve never said I wanted one, not specifically, and anyway, it’s not a question of not wanting it, I just don’t see the point, that’s all. We haven’t even started looking into having a baby yet so it may be years before we have a child.”
I stare up at him. “What’s having children got to do with it?”
“I give up,” He says, getting to his feet. I don’t understand anything. I’m going downstairs.”
“I thought you’d be happy!” I shout after him. “I thought you’d be happy to have a garden shed! I’m sorry if I got that wrong too!”
He comes back into the room. “A garden shed?”
“Yes, I thought you wanted one,” I say accusingly.
“Well, of course I want one.”
“So what’s the problem? Is it the size, because if it is, we can always change it.”
A frown furrows his brow. “Let me get this straight—you’ve bought me a garden shed?”
The whole situation can get kinda dizzying (in the best possible way). Then, to complicate an already fragile situation (in terms of who is being manipulated by whom and why), the doctors put Cass on a regiment of anti-anxiety medications, to which she reacts badly.
I take two pills before I go to bed so that I sleep all through the night and, each morning, before he goes to work, Matthew—taking to heart Dr. Deakin’s admonishment that I should rest—brings be another two along with my breakfast tray. It means that the anxiety I always feel once he’s left for work has dulled by the time I’ve showered and dressed. The downside is that, by mid-morning, I feel so sluggish that it’s hard to put one foot in front of the other. I spend most of my days drifting between wake and sleep, sprawled on the sofa, the television switched to the shopping channel because I can’t summon the energy to change it.
Between her first novel, Behind Closed Doors, and The Breakdown, B. A. Paris has shown herself to be a psychological manipulator extraordinaire. Here, she has elevated a regular event—not stopping to help someone on the side of the road—to a classical Hitchcockian nightmare. Figuring out whether Cass is just a confused woman or a victim or a manipulator makes for a great ride.
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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.
Read all posts by Jenny Maloney for Criminal Element.