Robyn Harding’s fourth novel, The Swap, is a thoroughly delightful if slightly disturbing combination of some of my very favorite thriller tropes. It’s a revenge story centered around a toxic female friendship, and in her usual style, Harding has managed to create a book I hated to look away from for even a moment.
There are three women in this story, but we only get the perspectives of two of them. Swallow, called Low, is a brooding teenager who has grown up on the fringes of society due to her family’s unconventional lifestyle. Her parents are involved in an open relationship, and the residents of the small island town they call home are extremely disapproving of this fact. So, when the glamorous and urbane Freya moves in not far from Low’s family, Low is almost immediately captivated by her beauty, wit, and willingness to like Low for who she is as a person separate from her family’s chaos.
Low isn’t the only one who gravitates toward Freya. Our other narrator is a middle-aged shop owner named Jamie, another relative newcomer to the town. She and her husband have moved to the town to enable Jamie to realize her dream of owning a small gift shop. They’re also pretty desperate to conceive a child, something that hasn’t happened yet despite their best efforts. There’s something about Freya that draws Jamie in, that makes her feel valued in spite of her childless status.
Low is not at all pleased by Freya’s budding friendship with Jamie. She’s become incredibly possessive of Freya’s time, and as Jamie and Freya grow closer, Low begins to feel angry and insecure. She knows the two women spend a lot of time together, even including their husbands in some of their activities, and Low can’t think of a way to break into their friendship circle. She is, however, a patient person, and that patience eventually pays off when one night, after a dinner party and a few too many drinks, Freya and Jamie swap partners for the night, and this seemingly harmless bit of fun sets Low firmly on a path of revenge that will change the lives of everyone involved in ways none of them could have ever imagined.
I was initially a bit put off by Harding’s decision not to include Freya’s perspective in the story. She is, after all, central to everything that goes on, so it felt odd never to see things through her eyes. However, as events unfolded and I got to know all the characters a bit better, I realized the author’s decision made quite a bit of sense; Freya is the axis around which both Jamie and Low revolve, but understanding who she really is as a person could have spoiled certain aspects of the plot. Instead, the reader learns bits and pieces of Freya’s history along with the protagonists, adding an extra layer of intrigue to the overall story.
This probably isn’t a book you should pick up if you need to like all of the characters in the books you read. Everyone, even the people we’re supposed to cheer on, is quite flawed, and their emotional baggage does make them difficult to relate to at times. Jamie was my personal favorite, but even she had her fair share of unlikeable attributes. Having said that, I do recognize the fact that solid, upstanding citizens with little to hide and an unwillingness to break social conventions don’t necessarily make the best thriller subjects, so, in many ways, these characters do suit the story Harding is telling. Readers just need to be prepared for some cringe-worthy behavior on the part of pretty much everyone.
For obvious reasons, I can’t tell you how things unfold as Low seeks revenge against both Jamie and Freya, but be assured you’re in for a wild and twisty ride, and things didn’t go at all the way I expected. There are a few things readers may figure out before the author intends them to, but by and large, the twists were surprising and original.
Over the years, I’ve become a big fan of Robyn Harding’s work, and The Swap serves to reaffirm my love for her complicated and compelling thrillers. If you haven’t read any of her previous books, I highly recommend them as well, but pick up The Swap first.