Before She Knew Him
I’ve read and enjoyed two of Peter Swanson’s previous novels, so I was really excited to get my hands on a review copy of his latest novel. Unfortunately for me, Before She Knew Him didn’t turn out to be at all what I was expecting.
Hen and her husband Lloyd have recently moved into a lovely house in a small town not far from Boston. Hen works as an illustrator of children’s books, and she’s pretty happy with her life. She’s finally found the right medication to control her bipolar disorder, and her marriage is a good one. When she tries to imagine her future, she only sees good things.
Then, Hen and Lloyd begin getting to know their neighbors, and their lives take a terrifying turn. Matthew is a teacher at a nearby prep school. He’s handsome and charismatic, the kind of guy people are drawn to without really understanding why. Hen finds herself falling under Matthew’s spell, but when she spots a soccer trophy on display in his study, she begins to wonder if her neighbor is hiding some very dark secrets.
You might be wondering why a soccer trophy would make Hen so suspicious. At first, I wondered that too, but it soon becomes clear that Hen is convinced the trophy is linked to the unsolved murder of a former student of the prep school where Matthew teaches. Hen is somewhat of a true crime buff, and she was especially fascinated with this particular case when she first heard about it. She read everything she could find about it, and she knows the victim once owned a trophy that looks exactly like the one in Matthew’s study. In her mind, these things point to Matthew knowing more than he’s letting on about the crime.
Hen is not a super reliable narrator. Her bipolar disorder is supposedly under control, but she acts pretty manic at several points during the story, making me wonder if her meds were working as well as she claimed. She also has a history of accusing people of things they’re not guilty of, making it hard to tell if her beliefs about Matthew are based in reality, or if she’s having another episode of paranoia. At least, that’s what Mr. Swanson wants us to think.
I’m going to venture into spoiler territory here, because while I normally wouldn’t give away a key plot point in a novel like this, there’s really no other way for me to talk about the problems I had with the book without being clear about who Matthew really is. So, stop reading now if you plan to read this book.
OK. Still with me?
He’s a killer, and he freely admits this to Hen pretty early on in the story. I mean, who walks up to someone they barely know and says, ‘Well, you’ve found me out. I’ve been successfully getting away with murder for years, and I can’t wait to tell you how I’ve done it.’? That isn’t a direct quote, but it pretty accurately sums up the very strange relationship Hen and Matthew form. Hen wants to understand why Mathew kills people, and Matthew is eager to unburden himself to her. Nothing about this felt realistic to me. This is supposed to be a psychological thriller, but there’s nothing the least bit suspenseful about it.
There’s one pretty big twist toward the end of the book, but it wasn’t enough to redeem the story for me. Instead, it felt like a last ditch effort on Mr. Swanson’s part to shock the reader, and I didn’t buy into it at all. It was too little too late, and I was honestly relieved to reach the end of the story.
In short, Before she Knew Him is one of those books that fell flat before I was halfway through it. The characters didn’t feel authentic, the plot wasn’t nearly as compelling as the synopsis led me to believe it would be, and there was very little in the way of suspense. Mr. Swanson has written some great things in the past, so I’m not going to cross him off my list of trusted authors just yet, but this particular effort didn’t impress me at all.