A shorter (750 word) version of this review appears in the Dec. 17- 23, 2009 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly.and in the Dec. 23-29 issue of Fort Myers Florida Weekly. See: Florida Weekly – Lisa Unger
[Shaye Areheart Books imprint of Random House. $24.00. 352 pages.]
Lisa Unger is a novelist whose style and plotting are so fine, and whose explorations of the human psyche are so emotionally devastating, that reading her novels is an exquisite torture. She takes us places we don’t really want to go, even when protected by the supposed safety of a book’s covers. But once we’ve risked the first few chapters, there is no turning back. She has us needing to work our way through, with her characters, the most frightening, disorienting circumstances. So it is once again in her latest effort, Die for You, a brilliant evocation of the questioning mind: the person who cannot live without knowing the “why” behind the forces that are out to betray and destroy her, even if the search for answers only deepens the danger.
For certain people, there is no living without knowing. Isabel Raine is one of those people. A successful novelist and seemingly happily-married young woman, she finds herself in a dangerous situation when her Czech-born husband doesn’t return from work one day and, soon after, his office is ransacked by people pretending to be FBI agents. Isabel, at his office to find clues to Marc’s disappearance, is herself seriously injured by the intruders. When she awakens in a hospital, she asks her sister Linda, “Why didn’t they kill me?” As narrator, Isabel continues:
It wasn’t a lamentation; it was a question of pure curiosity. They should have killed me. I saw them all, could easily identify any of them and would likely be doing so shortly. Bu they hadn’t. Why not? To someone who constructed plot for a living, it seemed stupid, careless.
So it goes with Isabel Raine, asking the questions a novelist would ask with the audacity of the creative spirit rather than allowing herself to be a mere victim. She pushes against the professional investigators as often as she cooperates with them, and she takes independent action as if she were merely following out the dynamics of a work of fiction set in motion by her own imagination.
Detective Grady Crowe and his partner, Jesamyn Breslow, pursue the case with some suspicion of Isabel herself. Their professional skills and commitment, as well as their human foibles, are well-drawn by Unger, as is their frustration with Isabel’s behavior. Early on in the investigation, they provide Isabel with some shocking truths: the man to whom she has been married for five years had usurped the identity of another man – a Marcus Raine who was also an immigrant from the Czech Republic and who also worked in computer software – who disappeared in 1999. He, the new Marcus, had been living a lie. Isabel had been duped.
With these revelations, the premise shifts gears. It’s no longer “what happened to Marcus Raine?” but “how could Marcus have done this to Isabel” and “how could she have let this happen.” Thematically, Unger probes questions like “how well do we ever know another person” and “what is the root of personal identity.” It’s about nature and nurture, how relationships are built, how trust is won and lost, and how both knowledge and ignorance are dangerous things.
Now, seeming digressions into the backgrounds of Isabel and Linda, their choices in husbands, their contrasting responses to their father’s suicide and their mother’s remarriage, all become part of a much more intricate puzzle that goes beyond the mechanics of popular genre writing. While we can easily label Die for You as a psychological thriller, it is much more.
Like Isabel Raine, Lisa Unger is compelled to follow up on all questions about what makes people tick. She makes Isabel’s chase after the truth about her husband an inquiry into Isabel’s own psyche and behavior. She, Unger, complicates our understanding of the creative process, drawing parallels between the kind of character-invention a novelist undertakes and the kind of self-creation that we all undertake to one degree or another. It is even possible to say that Isabel believed in her husband because he was so well scripted and fit so well into the plot of her own life.
Now her life’s plot includes imminent danger. At one point in the novel Isabel’s long-time friend, constant admirer, and literary agent warns her: “This is not some novel you’re writing, Isabel . . . . This is your life.” When Isabel asks Jack “What’s the difference?” she is not just making a flip remark. Passages like this echo through Die for You, keeping us in touch with Unger’s powerful metaphor concerning life and art.
For all its provocative wisdom, Die for You commands the reader’s attention as a pulse-pounding march of incidents and information, often frightening, sometimes tender, always drawn sure-handedly and efficiently. Unger carefully orchestrates the revelation of information and the building of suspense by juxtaposing Isabel’s narration (the main thread) with scenes that glide through the thoughts of several other characters. Her delineation of subordinate characters – Isabel’s sister Linda, Linda’s husband Erik, their children Trevor and Emily, the detectives, a doorman, the haunted character Ben who eerily echoes the sisters’ father, and many others – is superb. Her renderings of several New York City neighborhoods and her evocations of Prague ring true.
Die for You extends the pattern of riveting excellence that has brought acclaim to Lisa Unger’s previous work: Beautiful Lies, Sliver of Truth, and Black Out. Keep in touch with her via her web site lisaunger.com.
For a review of Unger’s Black Out, see Lisa Unger