JANE DOE by Victoria Helen Stone
Lake Union; 8/1/18
CBTB Rating: 3.5/5
The Verdict: an addictive but slightly overdone revenge thriller
After reading so very many “unreliable narrator” thrillers in the past couple years, the promise of a different kind of narrator - a woman whose intentions are clear, if morally questionable, from the outset - drew me to Victoria Helen Stone’s forthcoming psychological suspense novel JANE DOE. Victoria Helen Stone’s biting thriller centers around a woman whose sole motivation is revenge. Protagonist Jane has crafted an identity for herself with a single end result in mind: she is going to become the perfect woman for a particular man, and then she is going to destroy him - just as he destroyed someone whom Jane holds dear. There are no false pretenses or veiled motivations here; Jane has revenge on the brain, and she won’t stop until she gets what she wants. In many ways, JANE DOE achieves what it sets out to accomplish: this book is undeniably addictive and fresh, and more than holds its own against the (arguably a bit tired) trend of the “unreliable narrator.” Jane is exactly what she says she is—no more, no less. Unfortunately, JANE DOE also suffers a bit from a tendency towards the overly-dramatic; readers who prefer subtlety in their crime writing will find JANE DOE too repetitive and loud for their tastes. Every element of JANE DOE is captured in stark relief, from Jane’s caustic personality to her vengeful mission and the corruption of the story’s secondary characters. Whether or not the melodrama of the story’s plot works for you will be another question altogether—and one that will determine how suitable of a selection JANE DOE will be for you.
A double life with a single purpose: revenge.
Jane’s days at a Midwest insurance company are perfectly ordinary. She blends in well, unremarkably pretty in her floral-print dresses and extra efficient at her low-level job. She’s just the kind of woman middle manager Steven Hepsworth likes—meek, insecure, and willing to defer to a man. No one has any idea who Jane really is. Least of all Steven.
But plain Jane is hiding something. And Steven’s bringing out the worst in her.
Nothing can distract Jane from going straight for his heart: allowing herself to be seduced into Steven’s bed, to insinuate herself into his career and his family, and to expose all his dirty secrets. It’s time for Jane to dig out everything that matters to Steven. So she can take it all away.
Just as he did to her.
There are few things I love more than a crime novel that introduces readers to a disturbed protagonist with a compelling backstory—a character who can bring you into their twisted worldview and make you happy (if a bit alarmed!) to spend time in it. Books like THE GOOD SON by You-jeong Jeong and LYING IN WAIT by Liz Nugent are superb recent examples of this kind of crime novel; in both instances, the authors have crafted compelling - and disturbing - characters with the kind of depth, authenticity, and entertainment value that are so rarely able to coexist. In JANE DOE, Victoria Helen Stone offers up her take on this kind of twisted lead. Readers meet Jane: demure, plain, and harboring a dark secret. Beneath her (intentionally) forgettable exterior, Jane is a veritable powder keg of anger and manipulation. A high-powered professional in her “real life,” Jane has moved to the Midwest and taken up a low-level job at a small insurance company. She has changed her appearance, reinvented her personality, and morphed into a much softer, gentler version of her true self… at least on the outside. The reason for this deception? Someone in Jane’s life was badly harmed by a man who works for this very insurance company—and Jane intends to do to him exactly what he did to her friend. Every piece of Jane’s carefully-constructed new life is oriented towards achieving one outcome: revenge.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve grown a bit tired of unreliable narrators. This doesn’t mean I don’t still find psychological suspense novels with unreliable narrators fun and entertaining (in fact, I just finished a book like that today—but more on that one soon!); it just means I need books that will sell me on a feature of their plot alongside the unreliable narrator, not on the unreliable narrator alone. With that personal fatigue in mind, I was totally sold on the idea of JANE DOE as a thriller featuring a reliable narrator—a narrator whose intentions are clear from the outset is certainly a breath of fresh air in the psychological thriller genre, and Victoria Helen Stone earns lots of bonus points for centering her story around a female lead who is so unapologetically herself... even if being "herself," in this case, means being cunning and vindictive. Jane is perfectly straightforward from the book’s first pages; we know her goals, her motivations, her secrets—and there’s something very refreshing about a character whose cards are all out on the table from page one. With the “reliability” of our protagonist clear from the beginning, the story’s central narrative is free to focus on action—and this is one of the facets of JANE DOE that works best. There’s an undeniable page-turning quality to JANE DOE that can be attributed to the author’s short, impactful chapters and the book’s relentlessly driving plot. Rather than wondering what Jane's intentions are, readers will find themselves wondering exactly how she's going to make her plans a reality. There's a great deal of fun to be had as the author unravels Jane's scheme in front of readers' eyes, and readers will find themselves (counterintuitively!) cheering for Jane as she enacts her vengeful plan. If you love crime novels with protagonists who are better understood as "lovable antiheroes", JANE DOE will be right up your alley.
There’s much to be said for the sheer entertainment value of JANE DOE, but it left this reader a bit disappointed in one fundamental way. Every element of this story felt turned up to an extreme - sometimes to the detriment of my reading experience. While I’m all for dramatic “popcorn reading”, much of JANE DOE felt over-emphasized and melodramatic, particularly when it comes to the ways in which the book's central characters are described. Readers will know even from the book's plot description that protagonist Jane isn't your average person; it's clear that she has some psychopathic tendencies, and the author - rightfully, I might add - establishes a very clear portrait of just how twisted Jane is from the book's earliest pages. This is a fantastic concept, but there is a repetitive quality to the way the author builds Jane's character that hampers the story's forward movement. There seemed to be a certain cyclical nature to the way Jane is described that I could have done without. I reached a personal breaking point with the book’s insistence upon reinforcing - in very blunt terms - just how “abnormal” Jane is; it began to feel that nearly every chapter ended with Jane reminding the reader of her inability to feel emotion and form interpersonal connections. It will be abundantly clear to the reader that Jane doesn’t process emotion in a "typical" way; there simply wasn’t a need to spell out this facet of Jane’s character quite as bluntly - or as often - as this book did.
This exaggerated quality applies to the story’s villains as well. Without spoiling anything, a central part of Jane’s scheme involves ingratiating herself to a pastor and his family. The portrait of this family and the church they run was, to me, a bit unintentionally comical in its extremity. There is a dizzying amount of corruption to be found here—so much so that it truly became a bit difficult for me to buy into the idea that this one family could really be so terrible. It’s also worth noting that some readers are likely to find this piece of the story quite offensive; your reaction to the author’s portrayal of Christianity will vary based on your own relationship with religion. This will be a very personal piece of the book to consider; it's not for me to say whether or not this will work for you, but it is central enough to JANE DOE that it's worth a mention in this review. All in all, a lighter hand in tracing the book’s more dramatic components would have served this story, and the authenticity of its characters, well. There’s a line between entertaining drama and absurd drama, and at times JANE DOE fell into the latter camp for me.
So would I recommend JANE DOE? I would, but I would do so to a specific kind of reader. The reader for whom JANE DOE is best suited will be the reader looking for a total binge-read: a slightly over-the-top and dramatic thriller about a woman on a mission of revenge. If you’re open to a bit of melodrama and don’t mind a plot that requires a few stretches of the imagination, JANE DOE will be up your alley—it certainly delivers plenty of page-turning entertainment value. Following along with Jane as she enacts her revenge scheme is undeniably fun reading material; pick this one up for something escapist and fresh to read in these final few weeks of summer.
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.
Paperback: 268 pages
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (August 1, 2018)
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