A NEARLY NORMAL FAMILY by M.T. Edvardsson
Celadon Books; 6/25/19
CBTB Rating: 4/5
The Verdict: family drama meets courtroom drama
There’s nothing I love more than a buzzy new Scandinavian crime novel—so suffice it to say, M.T. Edvardsson’s US debut A NEARLY NORMAL FAMILY has been high on my “most anticipated” list this year. I devoured this thoughtful and thought-provoking story just about a month ago, and have been mulling it over ever since. There’s a lot about this book that’s hard to categorize (and if you’ve been around CBTB for a while, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of categorizing my reads!): is it a legal thriller? A domestic drama? A “whodunnit”? In the end, the answer may not really matter, because what A NEARLY NORMAL FAMILY is is wholly original and compelling. This slow-burn of a story takes readers into the midst of a family at the exact moment that their blissfully ordinary life is shattered. With the news that their daughter has been arrested for murder, a mother and father must face the unthinkable. How far will they go to protect their child? And what if their child really is guilty? This isn’t a pulse-pounding thriller in the traditional sense - as in, you won’t find shootouts or fight scenes within this book’s pages - but author M.T. Edvardsson ratchets up the tension and emotional investment all the same. Told in a wildly engrossing three-part structure, this domestic suspense-meets-courtroom drama is sure to be one of summer’s buzziest releases.
M.T. Edvardsson’s A Nearly Normal Family is a gripping legal thriller that forces the reader to consider: How far would you go to protect the ones you love? In this twisted narrative of love and murder, a horrific crime makes a seemingly normal family question everything they thought they knew about their life―and one another.
Eighteen-year-old Stella Sandell stands accused of the brutal murder of a man almost fifteen years her senior. She is an ordinary teenager from an upstanding local family. What reason could she have to know a shady businessman, let alone to kill him?
Stella’s father, a pastor, and mother, a criminal defense attorney, find their moral compasses tested as they defend their daughter, while struggling to understand why she is a suspect. Told in an unusual three-part structure, A Nearly Normal Family asks the questions: How well do you know your own children? How far would you go to protect them?
The more crime books I read, the more I realize that the books that really, truly get under my skin are often the quietest. It’s not the bloody, slasher serial killer thriller that keeps me up late into the night—it’s books like A NEARLY NORMAL FAMILY, books infused with the kind of familiarity that seems to whisper to the reader “this could happen to you, too.” M.T. Edvardsson has mastered this kind of relatable, too-close-to-home suspense. The opening pages of A NEARLY NORMAL FAMILY are devoted to exactly this: establishing for the reader just how ordinary - just how very much like the reader - this story’s protagonists truly are. Readers are dropped into the mundane: the family dinners, the minor disagreements, the traditions, the quotidian details that make up an ordinary life. This story happens to be set in Sweden, but in this respect, it could truly be set anywhere—this family is instantly recognizable and relatable. They could be you. But just as the reader begins to feel lulled into a sense of complacency and security, Edvardsson drops the hammer, and the family’s teenage daughter is accused of committing a brutal murder. In an instant, this ordinary family is shattered.
What would you do if your child were accused of a brutal crime? This is the unthinkable question our protagonists are faced with, and it’s the question that drives this intricate story forward. Central to A NEARLY NORMAL FAMILY are three characters: Stella, the teenager accused of the crime; Adam, Stella’s father, a pastor; and Ulrika, Stella’s mother, a lawyer. I wouldn’t personally characterize this story as character-driven, though the perspectives of its characters are certainly essential to the narrative’s unfolding; though we’re in these characters heads, they aren’t quite as fully fleshed out as readers familiar with the highly character-driven novels of big-name Scandinavian crime writers might expect. But that’s not a flaw—to me, it’s a strategic choice. This story really isn’t about knowing every facet of its protagonists. It’s about unraveling the truth surrounding Stella’s arrest, and the author takes great care to keep every element in this story pointed towards that one goal. Though readers will spend time with each of our story’s three protagonists, they will never get a full sense of who these individuals are—but that’s okay. Just be sure to tailor your expectations accordingly; this won’t be the right book for you to pick up if you’re looking for a crime novel with a protagonist you can fall in love with. What’s most important here is what we can learn about the events surrounding the commission of the story’s central crime from the characters -- not what we learn about the characters themselves.
Edvardsson employs a fascinating plot structure to lay out the facts of the case at hand. A NEARLY NORMAL FAMILY is told in three parts: one narrated by Adam, one by Ulrika, and one by Stella. Each “part” is strategically employed to develop a unique strand of the mystery, giving the reader new insights and perspectives on the facts established early on. These “parts” never intertwine; each character takes his or her turn telling his or her side of the story, leaving it up to readers to connect the dots between these disparate perspectives on the truth. Along the way, readers will bear witness to the fissures that exist beneath the picture-perfect facade of this very normal family, and will watch as this once-cohesive family unit begins to splinter. Edvardsson’s ambitious plot structure pays off: readers will find themselves riveted by the change in tone and pacing that occurs with each new “part.” It’s to the author’s credit that this structure, which could feel disjointed in less capable hands, is so thoroughly entertaining and cohesive. If there’s one quibble to be had with the content of these “parts,” it’s simply that the latter two “parts” (both substantially shorter than the first) were so riveting, I could have done with a bit more time spent in each.
Much about A NEARLY NORMAL FAMILY defies what we typically encounter when we pick up a Scandinavian crime novel, but at its core, this story centers around something very familiar: a crime that must be solved. A man has been killed—a local businessman has been found brutally murdered in a quiet park. While Stella awaits her trial, and while her mother and father grapple with the horrific possibility that their daughter may be a murderer, the wheels of justice are turning. How did Stella know this businessman? What connection did she have to him, and what could possibly be her motive for murder? Perspective is everything here, and readers who love a slow-burning, intricate mystery will find huge amounts of material to sink their teeth into. As readers explore the varying perspectives of our story’s three central characters, the truth slowly but surely rises to the surface—and what readers come to learn about Stella and her personal life will shock and captivate.
Part domestic suspense, part courtroom drama, part Scandinavian noir, A NEARLY NORMAL FAMILY is a wholly original and memorable crime novel—the kind of genuinely compelling story you will find yourself thinking about days after you’ve turned the final page. Readers who love a slow-burning, intricate crime story with a healthy dose of domestic drama will find A NEARLY NORMAL FAMILY perfectly suited to their tastes; if you prefer a gritty, fast-paced thriller, on the other hand, you might find this story a bit slow for your preferences. Expectations are everything here, and the reader open to a thought-provoking and unusual crime novel will surely be as hooked on A NEARLY NORMAL FAMILY as I was. With his US debut, M.T. Edvardsson has established himself as an author to watch.
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: 400 pages
Publisher: Celadon Books (June 25, 2019)
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