Book Talk: J.P. Delaney, ‘The Girl Before’
Ordinarily, if a book doesn’t grab my attention in the first 10 pages, I set it aside and pick the next offering off my TBR stack. After several pages of J.P. Delaney’s “The Girl Before” (2017, 352 pages), I wondered if the story were ever going to move past descriptions of the house at One Folgate Street. However, I kept reading because I had previously read his (real name Tony Strong) older, but rewritten novel, “Believe Me,” which was a good psychological mystery. I’ll review it in a future column.
At page 60, I was finally on the verge of giving up when it appeared that something was about to happen. So, I kept reading. But even that was a little tedious because the story is narrated by two protagonists Emma (the girl who rented the house “before”) and Jane who supplanted her.
The house was the creation of Edward Monkford, a perfectionist, minimalist, and enigmatic character. And One Folgate Street is the “house of the future” that trains its residents to live according to Monkfort’s “200 or so” rules for tenants, including no pets, no children, no rugs, no wall hangings, no clothes left on the floor, and so on. There are no interior doors (kind of reminds me of the house that I designed for myself after my original house in Madera burned down) and — a feature that is important to the plot — an “open” staircase, a series of stone slabs sticking out from the wall.
Emma and Jane “write” alternate chapters, which can be confusing, and each woman bears an uncanny resemblance to Monkfort’s dead wife. They’re both aware of the fact that they are constantly being monitored by “Housekeeper,” a program that also performs such services as turning on the shower and setting the water heat to their preferred level.
In order to be chosen as tenants, each woman has had to fill out an intricate application, containing such compulsory items as “I have no time for people who don’t stive to better themselves. Agree/Disagree” and “You have a choice between saving Michelangelo’s statue of David or a starving child. Which do you choose? A. The statue or B. The child.”
Emma and her boyfriend Simon moved into the house first and split when Emma fell in love with Monkfort. She dies because of a fall from the stairs. Her chapters begin with “Emma Then.” Jane moves into the house sometime after Emma’s death. Her chapters begin with “Now Jane.”
Jane is intrigued by Emma’s death and is determined to find out if she committed suicide, died accidentally, or was murdered. If she had been murdered, Jane’s prime suspect is the architect Monkfort, with whom she is now enamored.
After page 60, the book gets increasingly tense in this psychological mystery. The characters are a bit hard to imagine, but once the plot starts to unfold, I was glad that I stuck with it. The novel has been made into TV miniseries by Ron Howard for HBOmax, and it stars acclaimed actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
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Jim Glynn may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.