Desert Isle Keeper
Not a Happy Family
Not a Happy Family is bestselling author Shari Lapena’s new suburban domestic thriller. Lapena is a master of that sub-genre, and this is a not-to-b- missed read for fans of those books.
As the title suggests, the wealthy Merton Clan is not a happy family. Fred, the patriarch, is malicious and makes his adult children miserable with his endless sly manipulations and vicious put downs. Matriarch Sheila has survived her marriage by drawing completely into herself. She never challenges Fred’s abuse and is concerned only with what their equally rich neighbors think of them.
The kids don’t spend much time with their folks, but holiday gatherings are a mandatory event, and Easter Sunday morning finds all three Merton offspring getting ready for dinner at their parents’ house. Catherine, the eldest, is a successful doctor married to an equally successful dentist. The only thing she looks forward to that day is being in the family home. She loves the lavish estate with its beautiful furnishings, tasteful and expensive artwork, elegant, pricey dishware and costly antiques. When her parents die, Catherine plans to take the house as her inheritance and let her younger siblings have all the cash. Her husband Ted doesn’t want to attend. He knows Fred will start an argument with someone and doesn’t want to get caught in the middle of it, but Catherine pushes him into going.
Youngest daughter Jenna is the family wild child. An artist who specializes in sculptures of female genitalia, she spends most of her time partying in New York City. Jenna has zero desire to see her family, but she lives off a stipend her parents provide and has no choice but to go when they demand it. To annoy her dad, she brings along James, a young artist she recently met, and the two of them smoke pot on their drive to upstate New York from the city, giggling over the fact that they will reek of marijuana when they arrive.
The person who least wants to attend this little get together is Dan, the middle child. His father hates him the most and has made no secret of that. Dan worked for his father for years, putting up with being insulted and berated on a regular basis by holding on to the dream that he would eventually inherit the family business. Then his father sold the company, leaving Dan with no job and no future prospects. Thanks to a foolish investment, Dan’s savings are tied up and he’s pushed the limit of all his credit cards trying to stay afloat. He hates that he will have to ask his father for a loan or face the fact that he and his wife Lisa will be in deep financial trouble without it.
There will be two other guests at the dinner. Audrey, Fred’s sister, joins the family for all their celebrations even though the kids and Sheila can’t stand her. And Irena, the children’s beloved former nanny who now works two days a week as housekeeper, will earn her dinner by helping set up and clean up the meal. Everyone but Audrey (who has the flu) duly shows up, and everything goes as badly as they expect it to. Fred has a knack for crushing people’s hopes and at the dinner he tells Catherine he’s selling the house, tells Jenna he’s cutting off her allowance, and advises Dan there will be no loan. Lisa, Ted, James and Irena are forced to sit as awkward witnesses to both Fred’s cruelty and the fallout. Before dessert is even put on the table, the guests all leave angry. A fact they all try to hide from the police when Fred and Sheila are violently murdered later that night.
The family presents a united front to the detectives investigating the crime. They all went directly back to their own homes after dinner and stayed there all night. The dinner was pleasant, and everyone got along. They know of no one who would be angry enough with their parents to do this.
The police don’t believe their lies.
The author does a nice job of showing how basic investigative work begins to unravel the Merton siblings’ alibis. She also does a great job of slowly peeling away the layers of their personalities so that we get to know the real people beneath the sympathetic facades. By the end of the novel, we have four very viable suspects for murder.
I say four because Irena, too, is caught up in everything that is happening. It is she who finds the bodies and she whose alibi for the night in question is the weakest. Irena is also the person most likely to lie – or kill – for the Merton children. She, not their mother, raised them. And she, not their mother, loves them and knows them better than anyone. The question is, just how far would she go for them?
Lisa, Ted and James find themselves asking the same question. All three of the Mertons did go out that night and asked for alibies from their significant others. Now the three other halves find themselves lying to the police and questioning whether their partners are capable of slaughtering two elderly people.
Another driving factor in the tale is Audrey. Fred had told her prior to that fateful dinner that he will be leaving half his money to her and the other half is to be divided up amongst his progeny, and when she learns that is not actually the case, she’s furious. Audrey becomes determined to prove that the children are responsible for the crime and begins to tell the police some damning family secrets.
There is another party in this pressure cooker as well. Unbeknownst to the others, someone behind the scenes has been a part of all the recent family drama. As the police close in, that figure must determine what they can and will do to survive.
Many thrillers are lauded for their twists and turns, and this book is no exception. Each new piece of information yanks us in a different direction. The fact that we have a plethora of possible killers is another factor that really drives up the suspense in the tale. It could be anyone – they all have motives, and below their average, seemingly normal benign veneers they all have the hard, cold core it would take to see the job done.
That’s what’s exceptional about Lapena’s work – her ability to craft believable villains out of ordinary humans. The Mertons are all personalities that pepper everyday life in the U.S. and yet they are also all folks who prove to have a very dark side indeed. The author just does a fantastic job of showing how ordinary lives can be filled with extraordinarily complex and violent undertones. She weaves fantastically complicated, intricate personas out of our typical suburban characters.
Not a Happy Family is a terrific read for anyone who loves the suburban thriller market or who enjoys character driven whodunits. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good mystery.