BEST DAY EVER by Kaira Rouda
Graydon House; 9/19/17
CBTB Rating: 2/5
The Verdict: overdone, forced suspense
There's nothing more disappointing as a reader than picking up a book you're excited about, and strongly disliking the read. Unfortunately, my experience with BEST DAY EVER was not one I'd wish to repeat. What seemed intended to deliver a twisty domestic thriller with an unreliable narrator turned out to be dissatisfying at best, and at worst a simplistic and forced attempt at the psychological complexity a crime novel can offer. Newcomers to crime fiction might be, through no fault of their own, convinced that this kind of read is exemplary of the genre; I would welcome the opportunity to steer them in another direction. Crime fiction can offer readers true insight into human nature and the capacity for evil we all carry within us—BEST DAY EVER attempts, and fails, to achieve this.
“I glance at my wife as she climbs into the passenger seat, and I am bursting with confidence. Today will be everything I’ve promised her…and more…”
Paul Strom has the perfect life: a glittering career as an advertising executive, a beautiful wife, two healthy boys and a big house in a wealthy suburb. And he’s the perfect husband: breadwinner, protector, provider. That’s why he’s planned a romantic weekend for his wife, Mia, at their lake house, just the two of them. And he’s promised today will be the best day ever.
But as Paul and Mia drive out of the city and toward the countryside, a spike of tension begins to wedge itself between them and doubts start to arise. How much do they trust each other? And how perfect is their marriage, or any marriage, really?
Writing an unlikable yet compelling main character is a balancing act for any author, and it's one which unfortunately falls flat in BEST DAY EVER. In BEST DAY EVER, readers are introduced to Paul Strom, an unlikable character whose distastefulness seems to seep from every fiber of his being. I would preface this entire discussion by saying that I love unlikable characters - when they're constructed thoughtfully, and their rough edges serve a purpose within the story. (See below for some of my favorite books featuring unlikable characters—there are many.)
Paul Strom is the antithesis of what an unlikable character should be. Yes, he's awful - he's nasty, spiteful, controlling, and harbors genuinely repulsive views towards woman - but that's all he is. There's no sophistication, and certainly no psychological depth, with this character; what you see is what you get. The author does provide brief glimpses into Paul's terrible childhood, but it’s just not enough to balance out his otherwise simplistic and predictable actions. He's a nasty man who does nasty things, but he's lacking in the complexity or human contradictions that give such potency to the characters of books like THE DINNER and SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL by Herman Koch.
To make matters worse, he's not just a one-dimensional character—he is in your face with his "badness." From the first page of this book to the last, Paul Strom will not let the reader forget: he is a bad man. There's no subtlety here. Paul says horrible things and he does horrible things, and that predictable behavior oversimplifies a crime writing tool that can be used for genuine exploration of human psychology. What makes a person bad, and what internal tensions arise as they behave in this way? Unfortunately, these questions are not explored successfully in BEST DAY EVER. Perhaps that's not your cup of tea, anyway - maybe you're just looking for an entertaining and shocking read. I totally respect that - I love a lighter thriller as much as the next person. But I will say this: as a reader, I have no patience for shock value just for shock value's sake, and a story with a main character who is consistently and predictably "bad" leaves almost no room for plot twists. After all, if a character always does the worst thing possible, why should a reader be surprised by a continuation of this bad behavior? I was sorely disappointed to discover that there were no real reveals or shocking twists in BEST DAY EVER - the reader will simply discover that Paul is exactly who he seems to be from page one.
For me, the saving grace of BEST DAY EVER is that it is a quick read. To its credit, it does fly by - despite my issues with it, I managed to read it in just a couple days. I did also enjoy the book's Epilogue significantly more than the rest of the read. It was the first part of this book that seemed a bit more grounded in some semblance of reality. Unfortunately, this wasn't enough to rectify the rest of the read for me, and I would not recommend it. If the intention of this book appeals to you - a domestic thriller with an unlikable main character - I can confidently recommend a number of high quality, sharp witted crime novels that succeed in delivering what BEST DAY EVER could not.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions my own.
Plus: Recommended Crime Books with Unlikable/Unreliable Narrators
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Graydon House (September 19, 2017)
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