Every time I read one of Carol Goodman’s books, I get the chills. It’s not only because her stories are so deliciously on-the-edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, but her writing is so damn good. She keeps me turning the pages, and her newest novel, The Stranger Behind You (William Morrow), is no different.
In this ripped-from-the-headlines story, Joan Lurie is a young journalist whose former boss, the formidable newspaper publisher Casper Osgood, has been wielding his power to sexually assault women on his staff. When Joan reports an incident involving Osgood to her HR Department at The Globe, Osgood’s newspaper, Joan and the assault victim are fired.
Joan is snapped up by Simon Wallace, the publisher of Manahatta magazine, as a style department writer while secretly researching an exposé about Osgood. Simon, a former colleague and college friend of Osgood and his wife, Melissa, wants Joan to expose the sexual predator Osgood has always been. Simon wants justice to be served to a man whose wealth and standing have shielded him in the age of #MeToo.
Joan becomes the toast-of-the-town when the Osgood article hits the stands on the night of Melissa Osgood’s charity gala, and Joan is offered a seven-figure book deal about the Osgood exposé. As a fallout, the Osgoods are publicly humiliated, Osgood is dismissed from The Globe, and he commits suicide, leaving his finances in shambles. Melissa swears revenge against the woman who ruined her life and destroyed her family. That woman is not Osgood’s ex-mistress, Amanda; that woman is Joan Lurie.
A THIRST FOR REVENGE
After being attacked in her seedy Lower Eastside apartment, Joan blows her publication advance on a ritzy coop in upper Manhattan. The attack has rattled Joan to the core, making her afraid to leave her new digs in The Refuge, which she learns was the site of an infamous Magdalen Laundry. There, “ladies of ill repute” were locked away by the church and sentenced to hard labor over the laundry vats.
When Joan’s elderly neighbor recounts her association with the gangsters of 1940s New York City and the Magdalens, Joan is obsessed with the parallels between the former Magdalens inmates and Osgood’s victims. Despite more threats against her life, Joan doggedly investigates a mysterious event involving Osgood, which may prove even more damaging than the sexual harassment charges.
Melissa struggles to accept her husband’s infidelities and that her multiple vacation homes, Burberry, Gucci and Prada were all perks of her past life with Caspar. Like Joan, her desire for revenge colors her perspective. She will stoop to any level necessary to ruin Joan’s life and clear her husband’s good name. Honestly, if I reveal how nuts Melissa gets, it would ruin the fun and suspense of this novel.
THE IMBALANCE OF POWER
Superficially, the story appears to be about two women. One whose fortune rises while the other’s falters. Or is it? In reality, neither woman is who the other perceives her to be. To Melissa, Joan’s life is rosy while her own modest life is miserable. To Joan, Melissa has lived a spoiled life and had been as “compliant” to Osgood as his other victims.
In an entertaining and realistic way, The Stranger Behind You examines the imbalance of power in publishing, class, politics, sex and relationships, and the frustration of the disadvantaged female party in the equation. Goodman’s characters represent the truism that rich men will always control greater political power, and their female underlings will always remain at their mercy.
In the Stranger Behind You, rich men will figuratively, and literally, try to get away with murder. Goodman sadly acknowledges that society hasn’t advanced much since the 1940s when women who levied sexual abuse charges were also ignored. Still, she and her characters remain hopeful.
The novel also addresses the tension between memory and imagination. It is human nature to wax poetic about the past and we often don’t question the accuracy of our memories. We believe what we choose to believe because no one wants to admit they’ve lived a lie.
Joan and Melissa’s tragedies make them strange bedfellows as they seek the truth about the past. Any reader who enjoys complicated female friendships, pent-up resentments, and petty jealousies, mixed with historical and gothic elements will revel in Goodman’s chilling The Stranger Behind You.