YOU WERE MADE FOR THIS by Michelle Sacks
CBTB Rating: 4/5
The Verdict: nasty, biting, page-turning drama
Why do we love to observe catastrophe? It happens every day, in big ways and in small. We slow down to observe an accident on the side of the road; we seek out with fascination news stories involving all manner of unthinkable events; we pick up crime books like Michelle Sacks’ sharp-edged YOU WERE MADE FOR THIS. Sometimes I’m sure we do these things to better understand our world and all its dark corners—sometimes I’m sure we do it for no reason other than morbid curiosity. In Sacks’ caustic novel of secrets and lies, readers explore the everyday catastrophes of interpersonal relationships. There’s jealousy, revenge, insecurity, betrayals, and a whole lot more to be found within these pages, and it’s this potent blend of all too human experiences that give YOU WERE MADE FOR THIS its bite. This won’t be a book for everyone; don’t come to Sacks’ work looking for characters to inspire you. The women and men who fill these pages have a bad tendency to give into their worst impulses—and theirs is a catastrophe I, for one, couldn’t look away from.
Doting wife, devoted husband, cherished child. Merry, Sam, and Conor are the perfect family in the perfect place. Merry adores the domestic life: baking, gardening, caring for her infant son. Sam, formerly an academic, is pursuing a new career as a filmmaker. Sometimes they can hardly believe how lucky they are. What perfect new lives they've built.
When Merry's childhood friend Frank visits their Swedish paradise, she immediately becomes part of the family. She bonds with Conor. And with Sam. She befriends the neighbors, and even finds herself embracing the domesticity she's always seemed to scorn.
All their lives, Frank and Merry have been more like sisters than best friends. And that's why Frank soon sees the things others might miss. Treacherous things, which are almost impossible to believe when looking at this perfect family. But Frank, of all people, knows that the truth is rarely what you want the world to see.
You’d be hard-pressed to write a novel more appealing to me than one about a pair of New Yorkers who leave behind the big city in favor of the Swedish countryside. Anyone who knows me will know that’s pretty darn close to my personal pipe dream—just swap out Sweden for Norway and you’re there. But of course, this being a crime novel, things might start out rosy in Michelle Sacks’ YOU WERE MADE FOR THIS, but they sure don’t end that way. Readers meet Merry and Sam as they are building a life for themselves in the Swedish countryside with their infant son, Conor. Theirs is a life of almost painful perfectionism: from the picturesque beauty of the land their home is built on to the straight-out-of-a-catalog minimalist Scandinavian decor of the home’s interior, everything about their reincarnation in Sweden is shiny and new. But this wouldn’t be a book for Crime by the Book if things stayed that way. As readers spend time with Merry and Sam, it becomes clear that not everything is as it seems: in Sam’s past, infidelities and broken confidences; in Merry’s past, lies and cruelties all her own. Fans of B.A. Paris’ BEHIND CLOSED DOORS will find much to love in this on-trend story of a marriage with a rocky foundation and even darker secrets.
If there’s one thing you need to know going into this book, it’s this: you will deeply dislike the characters Michelle Sacks has crafted, but you’ll want to keep reading about them anyway. Remember that phenomenon I mentioned - the one where we slow down to observe accidents as we drive by? Reading YOU WERE MADE FOR THIS feels a bit like that: you will have to give in to your voyeuristic tendencies, and I'm betting you will observe with relish all the disasters that Sacks' characters bring upon themselves. Now, I’m one of those readers who actually loves an unlikeable character, so long as they’re given enough psychological complexity and fleshed-out backstory to make their unlikeability make sense. (In other words, I’d rather avoid unlikeable characters who seem to be nasty only for shock value.) In that respect, YOU WERE MADE FOR THIS was an easy sell for me. If you’re not of a similar mind, you might consider looking elsewhere for a summer read—there’s really very little to appreciate or value in the downright despicable men and women who fill the pages of this book. That being said, though, Sacks does use her characters’ unlikeability to explore topics relevant to so many of the readers who will find themselves with this taut book in their hands. Perhaps most relevant of all is Sacks’ deep-dive into the pressures of motherhood and the almost unimaginable agony of postpartum depression; following in a close second place is her razor-sharp portrayal of the harm that women can do to one another when friendship turns toxic.
For much of the book - the first half, at the very least - YOU WERE MADE FOR THIS speeds a long at a nice clip but with very little direction—it’s like you’re on a train that you know you’re glad to be on, but you just can’t quite figure out where you’ll end up. This first section, it's worth noting, doesn't feel much like a crime novel—more like an interpersonal drama. Then, without warning, the novel takes a dark and gut-wrenching turn - and this is where Sacks’ writing really grabbed me. It’s not a plot twist by any means, but it’s a pivotal moment in the story—and it’s one that makes you glad to have been along for the ride. As the characters reel from a life-changing occurrence, the frailties and fissures in their relationships are brought to the fore; the psychological damage they both carry and inflict upon one another becomes abundantly clear. This is where YOU WERE MADE FOR THIS really kicked in gear for me, and I’m confident the patient reader will find herself or himself rewarded by the heartbreaking and tension-inducing fallout of this occurrence. The best part about this shift, though, is how it highlights for the reader just how sharply Sacks has been observing the psychology of her characters. It’s difficult to discuss this without spoiling anything—but it's after this moment that readers will begin to understand the depths of depression and the searing toxicity that exist in the lives and relationships of our central characters.
Perhaps most compelling of all is Sacks’ unflinching portrayal of postpartum depression. For all her apparent domestic prowess, Merry hides a dark secret: she cannot connect with her son. She feels totally removed from him, and worse, she even resents him. Before Conor’s arrival, she and Sam truly did seem to have it all; now, to Merry's mind, they have nothing more than a carefully-maintained facade, the burden of which falls on Merry’s shoulders to keep up. While Sam goes off to work, Merry spends her days in deep despair, caring for a child she feels no emotional ties to and reading online forums run by mothers who are experiencing something similar. Out of site of her husband, Merry has taken to finding small ways to hurt her child—an unthinkable pattern of behavior that turned my stomach. Under the surface of Merry’s placid exterior, a storm is brewing… and it’s the arrival of her friend Frank that will cause it to erupt.
If Merry’s experience with Conor is a harrowing portrayal of postpartum depression, Merry’s friendship with Frank is an equally harrowing unpacking of the psychological warfare that can occur between women. Friends for years, practically sisters, really, Frank and Merry have a long (and very complicated) history. They love each other, yes, but they also compete with one another - and they do so viciously. Frank may be more successful in her career, but she has never possessed Merry’s innate elegance; Merry may have class and taste on her side, but she will never have Frank’s fierce determination and boldness. Now, I know firsthand that female friendships are so much more than the stereotypes of women as “catty” and competitive - I'm lucky to have strong relationships with women who inspire me every day. But I also know firsthand that sometimes the friends closest to us can be those that really know how to get under our skin. YOU WERE MADE FOR THIS pushes a toxic friendship to an extreme, placing it in isolation from society in a remote house in rural Sweden. The tension and claustrophobia between Frank and Merry hums off the page; readers will find their relationship as - if not more - compelling than Merry’s relationship with her husband, Sam. There’s nothing aspirational about the way these two characters treat one another, but there certainly is a whole lot of complexity for readers to unpack.
Summer 2018 seems to be the season of the unlikeable characters; look for similarly hard-to-handle characters in THE BOY AT THE DOOR by Alex Dahl (on sale in July from Berkley) and LYING IN WAIT by Liz Nugent (on sale in June from Gallery Books). Despite this bevy of troublemakers, readers will be hard-pressed to find a book as teeming with interpersonal toxicity as is YOU WERE MADE FOR THIS. Fans of unlikeable characters will find Sacks’ story addictive and propulsive; readers who can’t stomach them are better served looking elsewhere. This will be a tough pill to swallow for some, and a totally engrossing page-turner for others - myself included.
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.
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: Hachette (June 19, 2018)
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