Closer than She Thinks
Southern suspense set in New Orleans has become almost a subgenre in itself, with everyone from relatively unknown Metsy Hingle to Nora Roberts adding to the mix. As far as familiarity goes, Meryl Sawyer falls somewhere between the two, but she deserves to become better known for offering an intriguing mix of mystery, engaging protagonists and wonderful dialogue.
Alyssa Rossi is about to return to New Orleans after living in exile for more then ten years in Florence, Italy. She’d left New Orleans in disgrace after being accused of kidnapping her cousin Phoebe’s baby boy. The kidnapping was supposed to have been her revenge on Phoebe who became pregnant by and married to Clay Duvall, Alyssa’s fiancé. Alyssa fled to Florence and her Aunt Thee, who helped get her Rossi Designs costume jewelry business off the ground. Now Tritech, a New Orleans based corporation, has bought Rossi Designs and Alyssa is going back to New Orleans. What Alyssa doesn’t realize is that Clay is behind the purchase of her company and is sure he can convince her to rekindle their relationship.
These are all good elements for a complicated, southern gothic/suspense novel. But Closer than She Thinks avoids descending into gloomy dysfunction with the addition of a wise-cracking, practical hero. As CEO of Tritech, Jackson “Jake” Williams is leery of the deal Clay made to purchase Rossi Designs. When he investigates and realizes what Clay is up to, he decides to make things difficult for his unwelcome business associate. He convinces Alyssa to team up with him to thwart Clay’s plans, and the two form a dynamic duo that foils most of the plotting being done by their families.
Both Alyssa and Jake have serious baggage in their pasts, but neither is letting it define them. Alyssa grew up with her cousins Phoebe and Wyatt in the LeCroix household. She was unwanted, had to live in a room off the kitchen, and was despised by her aunt Hattie LeCroix. Jake grew up with his divorced mother. His father Max basically abandoned him and only recently has brought him into Tritech. Though Max apparently trusts Jake enough to make him CEO of Tritech, he spends half his time second-guessing him. Max has made little effort to repair the breech caused by his abandonment of Jake as a child but like Alyssa, Jake has decided to work with what he’s got rather then spending his time brooding about what he didn’t.
The energy of this book is what keeps it from becoming a depressing gothic dirge. The dialogue, especially between Alyssa and Jake, sparkles, but still manages to sound like a conversation that could be heard anywhere. And when the two experience difficulty in their relationship they confront it with the same vigor. When Jake suddenly acts strangely around Alyssa, she doesn’t decide he’s changed his mind about her and slink off to lick her wounds. She asks him what the hell is wrong! And they move on.
The energetic style of the author carries over into plotting and that’s where the book falters a bit. There’s simply too much going on and all of it gets wrapped up in neat, though not always logical, packages. Alyssa finds out something about her family history that is deeply upsetting, but by books end all is unrealistically well. The same goes for Jake and his problems. The mystery is occasionally convoluted to the point of total confusion and the subplot involving Clay and his mistress and her “boyfriend” was pretty much unnecessary.
These weaknesses made for a confusing storyline but didn’t truly detract much from my enjoyment of the book. Ms. Sawyer’s characterizations are so strong that even those that might be on the verge of stereotype benefit from her lively storytelling, making this one of the stronger entries in the “New Orleans, dysfunctional family” suspense oeuvre.