The Girl with a Clock for a Heart
by Peter Swanson
Published by William Morrow
Thanks to the publisher for the review copy
4.5 / 5
Faithful readers, I enjoyed the heck out of this book. Loved it. Yes, it has its (minor) flaws, but if you enjoy mysteries chock full of twists and turns, you will adore it as much as I do.
On a typical summer day in Boston, George Foss stops into his neighborhood bar to wait on his on-again, off-again, never-will-be-more-than-this girlfriend. He thinks he sees a former girlfriend sitting at the bar. And not just any former girlfriend, but the One Who Done Him Wrong.
Lest you be confused, “wrong” here is seriously f*cked up WRONG.
The woman does indeed turn out to be George’s first love – first everything – and before he can catch his breath, she looks soulfully at him and asks for a favor.
This favor, which of course George agrees to do because he has been obsessed with Liana for twenty years, catapults George down the rabbit hole into a world where nothing is what it seems to be, least of all George himself.
While at heart a mystery, this is also a book about self-discovery. George is presented as an “every man,” the sort of guy we all know. From his brown hair to his job as a financial guy for a publisher, there is nothing extraordinary about George. Even his relationship with Irene is uneventful. They occasionally have sex, but more often than not, they lead separate lives. He has lived in the same place for years, has driven the same make of car, and has made no significant changes to a life that brings him if not passion and fulfillment, then at least a modicum of contentment.
But from the moment he sees Liana again, George’s tidy existence changes, largely in a manner that is well out of his control.
When they met in college, George was instantly taken by her. They spent a semester together, during which George feel resolutely in love. How did Liana feel? She said she loved him. Then again, she said all sorts of things, including, “My name is Audrey.”
As George learns, though, “Audrey” is not her name. Did the woman he met in college really exist? I don’t mean physically – George didn’t make that up – but her. Who was this woman? Who was the person George fell in love with? How can he even know?
The further George allows himself to sink into Liana’s professions of truth, the more he realizes that he knows nothing, and the less he feels connected to the perceptions he has of himself. George had made peace with the life he crafted for himself. He may not have reclaimed the passion he felt with Liana/Audrey, but he has shrugged that off. He had it, it’s gone, life moves on.
Several times in the book, Liana is referred to as “addiction,” and she certainly is for George. He cannot stay away from her; he can’t say “no” to her, even when all sense and sensibility tells him to do so. Even when faced with gun toting bad guys who menace, shoot, and kidnap. Even when faced with Liana’s ever fluid sense of what is true.
Liana herself remains a mystery to us readers, largely because she is a mystery to George. He thinks he knows her, but that’s more self-delusion than anything else. What he likes to believe is a sign of her love and appreciation for him might very well be her recognition that he is available to her, willingly and completely, to be used. The title of the novel is a phrase Liana uses to describe herself. The clock doesn’t just tick for her, though. It ticks for George. How long does he have – with her? To stay alive? How long till he realizes – and accepts – that, like the second hand on that clock, Liana will not and cannot stay in one place and not die?
As I mentioned earlier, there are weaknesses. George displays a surprising ability to suss out various manipulations and machinations, albeit generally too late to do anything about it. If he’s so insightful and intuitive, why doesn’t his Spidey Sense tingle the second Liana starts talking? And why – WHY – does he not learn from his mistakes? That frustrated me more than anything.
I could not put this book down. And when I got to the ending … well, let’s just say that I was so discomfited that I emailed Peter Swanson and asked him WHAT IN THE WORLD was THAT? Like the best novelists, Swanson makes you think and demands that you imprint yourself on the book as much as it imprints on you. He does not end his story; he makes it continue in your mind.
I can understand how such an ending frustrates readers. It did me, until I thought more about it. Any other ending would have cheapened the rest of the novel, and Swanson does not take shortcuts or meaningless directions. If you like your books tied up with neat little bows, this one will drive you nuts.
In a good way. Trust.