This is an unsettling book for reasons that are difficult to describe. There is no graphic violence, no stalkers or killers, and yet the suspense kept me turning the pages well into the night. The suspense is all in how a family is going to deal with a major crisis and how they will come out of it.
Jill McPhearson and her husband of one year, Ben Niles, seem to have the perfect life. Sure she gave up a network news job to move back to Martha’s Vineyard to be with Ben, but Jill has no regrets. Ben also left the fast track to pursue a life running a museum on the island and is extremely happy in his second marriage. You’re probably realizing that all of this is too good to be true, otherwise there wouldn’t be a reason for this book. You’re right. Their world, and their beliefs about that world begin to crumble when Ben is accused of a heinous crime. A lonely young girl has accused Ben of molesting her, and in this day and age that means he’s guilty until proven innocent.
Ben is a fifty-three year old man who is stunned by the accusation. He knows what people will believe and he’s tortured by the fact that this is going to affect Jill, their children and their friends. In fact he’s so upset by the events, that he is practically paralyzed – a fact that makes Jill and the reader crazy. Jill can’t bear to just wait for the other shoe to drop and her pushing Ben to face the problem weakens their relationship even further. She will go to any length to get him out from under this, even though in her darkest moments even she has doubts.
This is a stomach-churning book. It’s written in such a way that I never believed Ben was guilty, but he makes the reader tense with every action and inaction he takes. At times my frustration with him was intense. Because his accuser is a minor, the facts of the case have not been made public and Ben makes it clear that he doesn’t want anyone to know. This heightens the pressure on both of them. Jill cannot talk to her closest friends and Ben begins to distance himself from everyone, including his adult daughter.
Ben’s insistence that this is his problem and not Jill’s was eventually aggravating. It’s believable that a man of Ben’s age, accused of this crime would want to emulate a hermit, but it got old by the latter parts of the book. Jill was equally frustrating at times. They talked around their problems and their denial was entirely realistic – it also built the suspense of how they were going to hold on to their relationship nicely. But because of the repetitive nature of their scenes, the tension lost some punch in the middle of the book. The pace did pick up again in the last section of the book. And though the denouement of the case is wrapped up in two pages, it was a believable outcome.
In the press release that accompanied this book, Jean Stone is referred to as a writer of romantic tales and Off Season does have some strong romantic elements. The strengths and weaknesses of Jill and Ben’s marriage are more then amply explored and a subplot featuring Jill’s best friend, Rita and her on-again off-again love affair with Charlie certainly had my interest.
Unsettling and suspenseful though this is, Off Season makes a nice departure from the more tried-and-true plots of regency England bluestockings and comic heiresses on the lam. Though it’s not perfect, it provides a satisfying read.