Book Review: The Girl Before

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The Girl Before

Author: Rena Olsen
Publisher: Putnam
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 314
Format: Softcover
Source: Library
My rating: 3/5

Clara Lawson is torn from her life in an instant. Without warning, her home is invaded by armed men, and she finds herself separated from her beloved husband and daughters. The last thing her husband yells to her is to say nothing.

In chapters that alternate between past and present, the novel slowly unpeels the layers of Clara’s fractured life. We see her growing up, raised with her sisters by the stern Mama and Papa G, becoming a poised and educated young woman, falling desperately in love with the forbidden son of her adoptive parents. We see her now, sequestered in an institution, questioned by men and women who call her a different name — Diana — and who accuse her husband of unspeakable crimes. As recollections of her past collide with new revelations, Clara must question everything she thought she knew, to come to terms with the truth of her history and to summon the strength to navigate her future.

Clara Lawson lives on a ranch with her husband Glen and their daughters. One day, their home is raided and, suddenly, Clara’s world is shattered. Glen only has time to tell Clara one thing before he is taken from her: Don’t tell the police anything.

Clara wasn’t always Clara. Her husband is a dangerous criminal. The girls are not their daughters. As Clara is pulled through a police investigation she cannot help but wonder what is true. As Clara realizes her entire life has been a lie, she is forced to look at her actions and the actions by those around her. What if everything you knew to be true about your life wasn’t?

The Girl Before follows Clara Lawson, after being ripped from her home, as she participates in the police investigation. Told between past and present, the layers of Clara’s past unfold. We see her growing up with her sisters with Mama Mae and Papa G, we see her falling in love with their forbidden son, we see her take over the “family business.” In the present, we see Clara trying to come to terms with what she believes to be true as the past and present collide.

What started off with a shocking opening – a door being knocked down, a husband arrested and a wife sequestered in an institution – ended on a flat and sort of dragged out note. This is the harrowing, and somewhat far-fetched, story of a woman forced to see the reality of the life she’s been living and the man she adores.
It took me a while to settle into the story and it was quite predictable, though I still wanted to see it end. Ultimately, I think if fell pretty flat.

I really wouldn’t classify this book as a “psychological suspense” since “suspense” is only created by the timeline jumping back and forth between the past and the present. For me, the real reason why Clara is being held by authorities (and why her husband, Glen, is in prison) is crystal clear from the start, so to have the author tease at it without revealing it for a while was frustrating and made for a slow start.

However, once the crime is revealed, the novel picks up pace as Clara has to analyze whether she is victim or perpetrator, loving mother or a willing accomplice. I found her breakthrough and acceptance of her new/old life to be quite sudden, but I think that would be due to the jarring style.

Not sure why this one just didn’t do it for me. The writing wasn’t terrible, but it was so dragged on and over-explained. I felt like I could guess what an entire scene was going to be, which made me tempted to just skim and jump through.

I don’t mean to disrespect the subject matter. I am commenting only on the storytelling. I wish the author used much of the repetitive sections to dive into detail about the many unanswered questions the story left.
The novel started out strong, but the suspense was not sustained in the middle. It felt like a really long game of musical chairs, but the music never stops and you just have to keep marching around the chairs. There was so much repetition.

There were also contradictions regarding the Clara. Her actions did not always match up to what I was given to know about her. She was naive, yet she knew worldly things. She was weak, but she was strong. Some of these actions didn’t seem plausible and kept taking me out of the story.

The ending did pick back up, but it was a little too late and my mind was already made up. The writing was very nice in some places, but overall, this story did not work for me.

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“I am nothing if not obedient.”

Laurie Hamame

Ball of sunshine. Chronic giggler. A lover of all things sweet potato. An overly friendly, world traveling, body positive warrior. Avid bookworm. Self-proclaimed chef and spiritually Italian. Promotor of daily walks, coffee dates and 30-second dance parties.

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Laurie Hamame

Ball of sunshine. Chronic giggler. A lover of all things sweet potato. An overly friendly, world traveling, body positive warrior. Avid bookworm. Self-proclaimed chef and spiritually Italian. Promotor of daily walks, coffee dates and 30-second dance parties.

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