The Heights is a tall, slender apartment building among warehouses in London. Its roof terrace is so discreet, you wouldn’t know it existed if you weren’t standing at the window of the flat directly opposite. But you are. And that’s when you see a man up there—a man you’d recognize anywhere. He may be older now, but it’s definitely him.
But that can’t be because he’s been dead for over two years. You know this for a fact.
Because you’re the one who killed him.
Dabney and Maggie read Louise Candlish’s The Heights, then (virtually) got together to discuss the novel and are here to share their thoughts.
Maggie: Something that I love about the current suspense/thriller/mystery market is that the characters are clever, nuanced and surprising. Almost every novel you pick up has this in common. Candlish is different. Having read her previous work, I know to expect three characters from her – one selfish jackass, one naive but earnest damaged individual and one middle-aged man who desperately wants to pretend he’s in his twenties and sleeps with younger women. She uses them effectively but they are always present. All three of those stock characters are easily identified in this novel. What is your experience with Candlish and would you agree those characters make an appearance here?
Dabney: This is my first Candlish and, after what you’ve said, I’m grateful for that. None of these characters felt stock to me. In fact, I’m not sure who would be who in your first two characterizations! I found Ellen, whom I describe as the main character, mesmerizing and unique. Her particular combination of rage, self-awareness, and intelligence was blazingly compelling to me. I’m guessing you see her as the earnest damaged individual? I’d argue she is, in her own way, a selfish jackass. But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. What did you think about the plot?
Maggie: I loved the plot ! It captures a lot of factors about modern family life really well in spite of its deeply atypical premise . Ellen epitomizes the way the modern mom feels – we are pressured to helicopter parent, to make sure our kids are achieving optimum performance scholastically while also having meaningful after-school activities (music, dance,sports etc.) and yet we are also expected to give them a great deal of freedom, to know when to stop hovering over them and allow them to spread their wings. It’s an extremely stressful tightrope to walk on and I empathized a lot with Ellen. She’s also symbolic of the pressures of co-parenting with an ex, that difficulty of getting them to agree on what is best for the child and carry through with the agreed-upon rules and boundaries. I didn’t find her selfish at all – tired, stressed and a devoted mother but not selfish. She also characterizes every mother’s deepest fear, that everything we do isn’t enough to keep bad things from happening to our kids or bad people from influencing them.
What did you think of the plot/premise?
Dabney: I, too, thought it was fabulous. You know, from the beginning, that something terrible happened to Ellen and her family and that she blames someone she thought was dead. Ellen’s loathing for this man is visceral:
Kieran Watts is the monster who destroyed my life. Whose actions will torment my soul until my dying day, and perhaps even beyond—I wouldn’t put it past him.
Ellen thinks he’s dead because she claims she killed him and yet suddenly, while standing in a client’s home in London, she sees him, standing on the penthouse deck of the apartment across the street. Ellen’s hatred for Kieran is visceral and, once she’s seen him, she is determined to find him and make sure that, this time, he pays for what he did to her.
To say that Ellen is obsessed with Kieran is to miswrite.Since the moment Kieran became friends with her son Lucas, seven years ago, Ellen has been sure that Kieran is, as you wrote, a selfish dangerous jackass whose friendship with Lucas is ruining her son. And, as the book goes back and forth between today and seven years ago, we don’t really know if Ellen’s right about Kieran or if Ellen’s obsession keeps her from seeing Lucas, Kieran, and Lucas’ sister Klara clearly. It’s mesmerizing.
Maggie: It is mesmerizing, although I think the last several chapters show us the truth pretty clearly. That is another aspect of the thriller market I love right now – pages and pages of uncertainty and then shocking clarity. It’s seductive and addictive. You mentioned Kieran, a disadvantaged teenage boy who earns a scholarship to a posh academy. He could easily have been a boring, clichéd caricature but seen through Ellen’s eyes he becomes an almost other-worldly harbinger of evil. How did you feel Candlish handled that aspect of the plot?
Dabney: Parents do not see their teenage children with clarity and, man, did I think that applied to Ellen. Part of the great fun of the novel is trying to figure out what is and isn’t true in Ellen’s narration which, we should add, takes up most but not all of the book. Candlish doesn’t make it easy to sympathize with Ellen consistently–her rage has warped her and, at times, makes her what may or may not be crazy. Is Kieran evil? Was he evil in the past but now should be forgiven? Who is the psychopath: myopic, enraged Ellen, Kieran the boy, Kieran the man, or some combination therein? I couldn’t put the book down because I so needed to know the answer to that question!
Maggie: This actually touches on two of the triggers I found in the book. One is harm to children/young adults – if you are sensitive to that, this probably isn’t the novel for you. The second is a phenomenon I call “Bitches Be Crazy” and which has been in existence in the Western world for many centuries. It’s the premise that strong emotions in women are a sign of unbalance – we are hysterical, obsessed, manic, unhinged. Most women have probably been told to “calm down” at least once in their life because we aren’t allowed any excess display of emotion. I thought Vic, the middle-aged guy who tries so hard to be “cool”, labels Ellen this way a lot, as do her daughter and husband. What did you think of the character of Vic? And did the book have any triggers for you?
Dabney: I am a trigger-free reader although extreme violence to kids is tough for me to read. So, no to that question!
As for Vic, I thought he was portrayed as someone we are supposed to know is a loser–I still can’t figure out what his wife sees in him. And, again, Ellen does need to calm the f*ck down. Her rage is ruinous and not just for her. One of the things I found especially unlikable about Ellen is how sure she is that her perceptions are THE RIGHT ones. She wouldn’t listen to anyone, not even those she loved and she knew loved her.
I really enjoyed The Heights tremendously even though I found Ellen, Kieran, and Vic all hard to root for. And I think that says something about how well Candlish writes–I usually don’t like books where I don’t like anyone but in this case, it didn’t bother me. Did you like the book?
Maggie: I enjoyed the book but with a caveat. I’ve heard other readers mention that they struggled to get past the beginning and I agree that this is a book you have to settle into. At the twenty percent mark the author says “keep reading – because we’re almost there” and I can remember wanting to scream at my Kindle “Are we??” because I felt like it was taking a bit too long to get where we were going. Once we were past the precipitating event, the story picked up and was very much what I expected from today’s thriller market.
In terms of grading, I would give it a B+/A-. The book is fabulous once the story really gets going but it does lag a bit between the gripping beginning and the backstory that returns us to that point. What grade would you give it?
Dabney: I too would give it at B+/A-. And, interestingly, for the exact opposite reason. I thought the weakest part of the book was the resolution and the post-resolution exposition. The first 90% of the book is a DIK read for me, but the end just wasn’t quite what I wanted.