Scared to Death
In Wendy Corsi Staub’s latest thriller Scared to Death, a book with nary a spec of romance in it, a knife-happy serial killer is plotting to harm not one but three children. I found the angst-filled plot hard to follow and even harder to enjoy.
For starters, Scared to Death is a sequel to a book I hadn’t read, Live to Tell, and makes very little sense if you haven’t read the first book. As best I could make out, fifteen years ago a now-in-jail New York politician named Garvey kidnapped and killed a young boy named Jeremy in order to harvest his organs for Garvey’s oldest daughter, who had a life-threatening disease. People were violently slaughtered in someone’s kitchen and now those who weren’t murdered are trying to get on with their lives. This book begins a year later and, in it, Elsa Cavalon — Jeremy’s adoptive mother — and Marin Quinn— Garvey’s wife and Jeremy’s birth mom — are trying to raise the children they still have. For both women, life is very stressful. Elsa and her husband Brett are trying to adopt their foster daughter Renny and the process is challenging. Marin is struggling to hold her life and her two teenaged daughters (Carolyn and Annie) together after the shock of finding out her husband is a stone-cold killer. Both families are being menaced by — and we learn this almost immediately — Jeremy, who isn’t dead after all.
Jeremy, who spent the years he was presumed dead being abused by a pederast named Papa, has suddenly realized that he had an earlier life that didn’t involve being molested and beaten all the time. He is angry at Elsa and Marin — his mothers — for not protecting him and for replacing him with other children. He begins to stalk both families. He sneaks into Renny’s bedroom, puts monitoring devices in the Cavalons’ cars, stakes out the Quinns’ Manhattan apartment and, in general, terrifies these parents who have already been through hell.
Ms. Staub writes well about familial relationships and the tension stress can place upon them. The agonizing anxiety that Elsa, Brett, and Renny feel is believably done, as is the despair Marin feels as she tries to parent her spoiled daughters. The fluid narration in the book switches easily from character to character. These characters, however, aren’t well differentiated and their voices tend to blend together. This lack of strong characterization is problematic because, for most of the novel, the plot is all menace and no mystery. We know Jeremy is alive, we know he’s pathologically stalking these families and we assume that he either will or — which seems far more likely —won’t manage to kill Renny, Caroline, and/or Annie.
At the end of the novel, the author threw in twist that, while I didn’t see coming, didn’t thrill me. It isn’t particularly believable and allows for a falsely cheery ending involving a visit to — I kid you not – Disney World. The author seems to want to show that truly terrible things can happen — more than once — to ordinary people. That may be true, but really, I don’t want to read a book with that as its thesis. “Life sucks and then you might die,” just doesn’t do it for me, especially not if the only happy ending in sight involves a far-fetched family trip to the Magic Kingdom.