Behind Closed Doors

A man, a marriage too perfect – BEWARE! (Spring Eaton, twenty miles outside London, present-day): I hadn’t expected to be drawn into Behind Closed Doors, a UK bestseller destined for the movies. I don’t like the thriller genre largely because it’s driven by plot not prose. Two months ago, I discovered a psychologically suspenseful novel with exceptionally good prose, so I’ve been open to reading more. Often disappointed by publishing hype, this psychological thriller’s hype rings true. “Unputdownable” rings so true I must warn you if you read this novel at night you might have trouble sleeping. It’s that psychologically jarring. Also true is the praise that it’s “incredibly well-written,” which brings me to why I’m blogging about it, why I got so caught up in it.

The narrator’s voice – Grace, married 18 months ago to a lawyer who never lost a case and resembles George Clooney – flows so effortlessly it feels as if she’s sitting by your side confiding her worst fears and opening up her good heart to you. Jack Angel – a surname he chose, a sadistic joke! – doesn’t have a heart, even though he’s “superficially charming” and can “strike observers as remarkably normal,” to quote one definition of a psychopath.

So, this isn’t a novel that just grips you at the opening; every page grips you. For you’re trying to figure out if someone could be this deranged and this clever to deceive not only your fiancé but everyone. You will be impressed by the intricate web of plausible deceit Jack – and British debut novelist B. A. Paris – have spun throughout. Which is why the novel scares us. Could this really happen in a marriage that seems so perfect to anyone looking in? Could a man so perfectly handsome, elegant, and gentlemanly be this emotionally sick to do what Jack does to Grace and has planned?

Leaving nothing to chance, he gives nothing away until the perfect woman comes along to execute his long-seated madness. He snaps her up in a matter of months. By the time he unveils enough of himself to her it’s too late, for he’s made sure there’s no escape.

The word perfect is effectively used, repeatedly. Perfect first appears on line 5 of the first chapter, titled “Present.” All chapters take place in the Present or Past, a clean design that has us glued to the deft and twisted machinations Jack frames, continually boxing Grace in.

Jack is the first to pronounce the word “perfect,” a response placed right on page 1 so we’re hooked, clued in something’s definitely not perfect in this household. Grace has accidently knocked into a bottle of champagne in the kitchen while dinner guests are in another room. She’s “hoping he [Jack] won’t have noticed how nervous I am.” Jack does, of course, because as we’ve already established, he doesn’t miss a trick. Why should a loving husband be pleased his newly married wife is anxious?

The dinner guests are two couples: Diane and Adam (he hailing from Jack’s law firm) and Esther and Rufus, new to the neighborhood and the group, emphasizing these are not Grace’s close friends. The dinner scene introduces the second, third, fourth, and fifth time the word perfect appears, with reference to Esther:

“I’m sure she’s been told over and over again that Grace Angel, wife of brilliant lawyer Jack Angel, is a perfect example of a woman who has it all – the perfect house, the perfect husband, the perfect lie.”

Hmm. By page 2 it’s confirmed: something’s horribly amiss!

The strongest word for the extreme opposite of perfect – nightmare, psychological torture, hell – depicts Grace’s predicament and husband. Worse, Jack is so frighteningly “brilliant” and cruel the only person who knows the marriage is a horrific lie is Grace. She finds that out on her wedding night in Thailand, revealed around page 85. That’s when it hits us Jack is clearly not who he purports himself to be. Grace is not only far from home, she’s far, far away from being “the luckiest person in the world.” Tragically, Jack’s old-fashioned manners and handsomeness wooed her. “He made me feel special, cherished, and best of all, he adored Millie.”

Millie is Grace’s younger sister, born with Down’s syndrome. Her parents didn’t want any children, let alone Millie. So when Grace meets Jack in a park when she’s with Millie and he dances with Millie, Grace falls under his wicked spell. Jack is awfully accepting of Millie, too willing to offer that when Millie turns 18 she can come live with the newlyweds. Jack knows Grace has promised she’ll take care of Millie after she’s finished her mainstream schooling (with a constant caregiver, Janice), which Grace fought hard for so Millie is never institutionalized. Up until now, it’s the reason Grace hasn’t had a serious suitor. Millie will be graduating soon. The clock is ticking.

You can’t help but admire Grace’s deep love and devotion for Millie. She grew up taking care of her. Their bond is beautiful: “I love Millie more than life itself and wouldn’t change her for the world.” It’s one of the few aspects of Grace’s story that’s beautiful.

Another could be their home which appears to be gorgeous until you get behind closed doors. Jack gave the home to Grace as a wedding present. They’d talked about her dream home, but it didn’t include being outfitted with two sets of metal gates, hidden by “high walls around it so nobody can see in.” Set in a fictional village that sounds a lot like a real village that appeals to Grace is a perfect façade. Apparently, Surrey is located in England’s wealthiest county, so Hollywood-type seclusion wouldn’t raise any red flags.

Then again, Jack has made sure there’s no one on the lookout to be suspicious. For starters, Grace’s parents will soon be moving to New Zealand. Perfect. Jack insisted Grace quit her job with the lavish Harrod’s department store. Travel requirements, he reasoned, wouldn’t be good for a fledgling marriage. She’s a fruit buyer, travels to South America. Who gives up an interesting job like that so easily? Grace, because of Millie. Perfect. Jack’s even offered to pay for Millie’s expenses until Millie comes to live with them, so why should Grace work?

Meanwhile, early on Grace allows Jack to take away her cell phone. Quickly, she loses touch with two good friends. She’s so gullible and unsuspecting because Jack is so “meticulous” in setting up that perfect lie. Losing friends, family, job, and communications would unnerve us. Not Grace, at first. She’s so focused on Millie’s welfare she loses track of her own. Maybe that seems implausible but if you’ve spent your entire life putting someone else’s needs above your own the pattern is fixed. As we put ourselves in Grace’s shoes, we see how she got herself into this nightmare, how she is Jack’s perfect wife. 

One thing you’ll love about the developmentally challenged Millie character is that she’s quite perceptive. By page 23, you sense it’s Millie who will give Grace her extraordinary “resolve.”

Can Grace extract herself from this nightmare? Before Millie becomes a victim too? How? This is what keeps us turning pages, perhaps late into the night.


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The Breakdown

Unreliable Narrator? (British village; July – September, present-day): It’s awfully tempting to compare The Breakdown with B. A. Paris’ knock-out debut Behind Closed Doors, reviewed here a year ago. If you’re wondering if her second novel disappoints because her first was too good an act to follow, the answer is unequivocally no. Both are non-stop, suspenseful novels that get-inside-your-head. Both excel at keeping the tension going and going and going.

How does the author achieve a relentless, psychological pace? Writing is such an elusive, subjective art. Wish there was a definitive blueprint. At best, suppositions.

Paris has an impressive knack for creating unreliable characters. In Behind Closed Doors, the narrator’s perpetrator, her husband, was pathologically unreliable, a psychopath who fooled everyone. This time it’s the narrator herself – thirty-three year-old high school teacher Cass – who is unreliable. We suspect her reliability more than you would otherwise by establishing that her mother had early-onset dementia by forty-four. (Before marrying Matthew a year ago, Cass spent three stressful years caring for her Mom, now deceased.) The author takes this fact further by making sure her protagonist tells us at every twist and turn that she doubts her trustworthiness, fears she may have inherited the disease as she’s been forgetful lately, worried she’s losing her memory, an early symptom. A perfect set-up for us to question who and what to believe is going on.

The second set-up is mirrored in Paris’ first novel. The author orchestrates an opening scene in which the reader senses something ominous is at play. In Behind Closed Doors this happened at a dinner party. In The Breakdown, a thunderstorm is brewing as Cass bids goodbye to colleagues as their summer break kicks-off. The weather worsens. By page three, its palpable her Mini car is no match for the conditions. Matthew called to warn her to stay clear of the short-cut home. Cass intended to heed her husband’s advice, but in the blink of an eye made the kind of decision any driver might have given heavy traffic and no let-up in the wicked downpour. A decision that changes her life.

“Although this road is beautiful by day – it cuts through bluebell woods – its hidden dips and bends will make it treacherous on a night like this. A knot of anxiety balls in my stomach at the thought of the journey ahead. But the house is only fifteen minutes away. If I keep my nerve, and not do anything rash, I’ll soon be home. Still, I put my foot down a little.”

Language is a third element in the author’s highly-effective style. Prose that, like the merciless weather, doesn’t let up. It flows on and on conversationally, naturally, realistically, so Cass feels very familiar to us. She could easily be a friend, a sister, a neighbor, and we’d be someone she’s very comfortable confiding her innermost guilt, worries, and fears, which intensify at a quick pace. Increasingly, Cass finds herself telling little white lies to Matthew and others, worried they’ll also think she’s confused, exhibiting more and more symptoms of dementia. This leads her to isolate herself more and more, dig herself deeper into this mental abyss. In a matter of weeks, she’s spiraled rapidly downhill, terrified of the terror she’s experiencing. At every step of the way, she’s not sure if it’s internal or external, imaginary or real. That’s because Paris has laid the groundwork, by page four, with an incident that ignites her duress.

Let’s turn back onto that haunting road. If it weren’t for the inside jacket cover, you’d be pretty sure Cass’ vehicle was headed for disaster. You wouldn’t be totally off-base as there is a problem with a car – someone else’s. Broken down, pulled over to the side of the road. Cass thinks instinctively, as we might. Should she slow down, see if she can help, or drive by not to risk her own safety?

We like Cass from the beginning for she tries to be a Samaritan, stops beside the car to see if there’s something she can do. What she sees is a woman gazing at her through the dark, wet window, so she can’t make out her face. Since the motorist shows no sign of needing assistance, Cass assumes, as we would, she’s waiting for road assistance to arrive and thus drives home. The next day, Cass learns the woman in the car was found murdered. Who wouldn’t feel guilty? Think we might have saved a life.

On second thought, Cass realizes she too could have been killed. A killer is on the loose. Since she lives not far from the wooded murder site in a charming cottage that’s also isolated, her mind starts working overtime, which ours might do too. But the truth is we’re not like Cass. We wouldn’t let our wariness completely overcome us, paralyze us, because we’re not petrified we’re deteriorating mentally.

What’s the chance that Cass actually knows the murdered woman, named Jane? The two recently met at her best-friend-like-a-sister, Rachel’s workplace. Jane and Cass clicked, even made a plan to get together soon. Of course, the guilt magnifies.

There are indications something is terribly amiss. A series of things – forgetting appointments, promises, conversations, her pocketbook, where her car is parked. Paris ups the ante as these little things get bigger, more alarming, like seeing a knife laying out in her kitchen that could be the one the killer used, returning to it once the police arrive and its gone. Is it hers? Did she forget to put it away? Hallucinate it? Added to all that turmoil is the constant barrage of silent calls she’s now receiving, a “chilling silence.” Matthew tries to calm her down, says the calls are merely solicitors. But Cass senses breathlessness at the other end. Could it be the killer, who saw her car at the scene of the crime?  Is someone stalking her? Or, is her mental state doing the tormenting?

We’re riveted to the pages, on the lookout for clues, aware how the author so cleverly planted a web of seeds in Behind Closed Doors.  Is someone watching her? Or, does poor Cass need some watching? A toxic, brilliant stew.

The title tantalizes too. Does it refer to Jane’s tragic breakdown? Our narrator’s nervous breakdown? Exacerbated by lots of coincidences and having too much idle time alone over a summer break?

You may think you’ve figured this thriller out around page 200. But Paris is smarter than us.


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Ethical Science, Ethical Child-Rearing — Behaviorism (Vassar College, Johns Hopkins Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic, Long Island, Whip-Poor-Will Farm, CT; 1916-1935): Many moons ago, I was an undergrad psych major. After taking all the clinical/Freudian offerings, the engrossing emotional stuff, all that was left were classical conditioning experiments with rats and mice (think Pavlov’s dogs). Stimulus-response, observable-measureable behavior — the antithesis of feelings. I hadn’t thought of those emotionless theories until Behave. Ironically, prepare for a roller-coaster ride of emotions!

Told through the complicit eyes of a science-savvy wife, Rosalie Rayner Watson, novelist and non-fiction writer Andromeda Romano-Lax delivers an absorbing, morally affecting fictional memoir taking stock of her life with the controversial founder of conditioning psychology known as Behaviorism or Behavioral Psychology: John B. Watson, a psychological giant of the 20th century. With very little known about the woman behind the larger-than-life trailblazer, the author had rich material to mine, done thoughtfully. (An ambitious novel; 401 pages.) You know you’re in for a ride when Rosalie sets the stage telling us it’s “tricky for any woman to sort out her feelings, but most of all when her husband is an expert on feelings.” Still, Rosalie comes across as a reliable narrator as all is not crystal-clear and things do not wrap up neatly.

John B. Watson
via Wikimedia Commons

Rosalie’s narrative is stunning given the popularity of John Watson’s extreme behaviorist doctrines that flourished in the 1920s to ‘50s. (B. F. Skinner came along and added complexity with his positive-negative reinforcement concepts.) Watson, on the other hand, espoused only three human emotions — fear, rage, and love; and claimed all could be stimulated, predicted, controlled. His radical views went mainstream into parental homes through magazines like Cosmopolitan and Parents and the bestselling Psychological Care of Infant and Child.

Behave opens in 1935 with an ill Rosalie, presumably what sparked this confessional. She examines: her privileged upbringing in a loving and lovely Jewish home in Baltimore; her passion for psychology at Vassar; a conflicted marriage to an influential man with “Valentino looks” and baggage from an unhappy Southern childhood and a troubled marriage to Mary Ickes, whose name rings a bell because her brother served in FDR’s administration (Rosalie and John married right after their divorce); Watson’s pioneering contributions to psychology and advertising; serious mistakes they both made in science and as parents. From the get-go, the prose grabs as you sense this is not going to be a pretty picture.

At the groundbreaking Johns Hopkins clinic run by prominent psychiatrist Adolf Meyer, the reader looks in on Professor Watson’s egregious, persistent breaching of ethical conduct involving human research subjects: fear-conditioning experiments on hundreds of “blank slates,” baby “Albert B” the most famous. Rosalie was his graduate assistant. She said nothing.

Rosalie Rayner
via Wikimedia Commons

Equally ethically disconcerting, she lets us in on what comes later, behind-closed-doors, as Rosalie navigates motherhood to two boys, Billy and Jimmy, under the dictates of her self-important husband. The reader can surmise how these two innocent children turned out; the Epilogue fills in their real history.

Professor Watson was thrown out of Hopkins for improper morals. Not for revelations about “Little Albert,” which came later, but for his scandalous love affair with Rosalie. He was twice the age of his student, married into a well-known family, a father of two, and rumors of earlier womanizing trailed him.

Watson and Rosalie appear to have embarked with good intentions. Partly in response to a topsy-turvy world after WWI, they aspired to “make the world a better place.” Did Watson really think he was helping to create happier children? Did Rosalie really take to heart his preposterous declarations that babies shouldn’t cry or be coddled or hugged? Granted Rosalie was a woefully inexperienced, overwhelmed, isolated mother. Did she go along with her guru husband’s “anti-attachment” approach because she didn’t know better, or didn’t have enough energy, or was she fearful of questioning the great man? By the time her mothering feelings were deep to admit the unnatural state of loving her two boys, it was too little, too late.

Much of their marriage took place during the break-the-mold Jazz Age, when Rosalie says it was “so easy to remake oneself these days.” Excuses? Maybe for her, but not for us. Except, I think, the author wants us to judge Rosalie against the context of history. Not to condone actions and inactions, but to provide perspective to our range of feelings towards Rosalie: disappointment, frustration, anger, outrage, sadness. She had so much, lost so much. As for the esteemed psychologist, you know you’re in good authorial hands because he engenders strong negative emotions!

Rosalie’s telling opens at Vassar College with her psych lab partner and best friend, Mary Cover. Enthused about science, Mary gave her a magnifying glass for her charm bracelet. We meet them in a course taught by the first woman to be awarded a doctorate in psychology, Margaret Floy Washburn. In short, Rosalie’s beginnings were charmed and seemed destined.

Mary Cover is key because in 1919 she and Rosalie, at Mary’s encouragement, traveled to Manhattan’s New School to hear Professor Watson’s lecture on behaviorism. By now, he’d achieved acclaim for his “1913 Behavioral Manifesto” presented at Columbia. In later years, Mary resurfaces, a haunting reminder of what Rosalie failed to do: juggle a career and motherhood. (In 1970, Mary was named “mother of behavioral psychology.”)

At first, working alongside the famed psychologist, Rosalie says she was her happiest:

“As a woman, I’d never imagined such heights of happiness: of being so wanted and so needed, my mind equally filled with our scientific tasks.”

Soon things begin to unravel. It starts with the dewy-eyed grad student hinting at discomfort with Watson’s experimentations with “Little Albert.” During those fear studies, Rosalie resists than falls for Watson’s magnetism. Then, there’s awkward, foreboding scenes of Watson’s wife oddly befriending Rosalie’s mother. Tension grows when Rosalie’s parents greatly disapprove of her marriage. (The love scandal made it into Baltimore and national newspapers.) When Watson moves Rosalie away from science, academia, and her family to the secluded wilds of Long Island, Rosalie is transformed into a lonely, housebound mother. Here, we empathize with her. She’s so out-of-sorts about her parenting skills and so fatigued she can’t even rouse herself to feel jealous about the comings-and-goings of John, now climbing-the-ranks in advertising.

John Watson was a man in a big hurry. In just three years post-Hopkins, he made a name for himself in the “psychology of appeal” at the prestigious J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Contrarily, he was psyching out the desires of the public without asking the same questions about his wife. Did he not care or see how lost she was, slumbering around in threadbare cotton dresses in a sweltering, drab rental bungalow without a phone? Frugal with Rosalie yet he was cavorting, drinking, and dressing in Mad Men style, including finding the funds to join a sailing club.

What happened to that charmed Vassar girl? Why did she give up her identity? Her dreams? Her family? Her moral compass? If she couldn’t stand up for herself, couldn’t she have at least stood up for her children? She admits she was an enabler: “How could two smart people be so stupid?”

Rosalie’s spiral is depressing. Depression is the best diagnosis I can come up with to reconcile how she came to let herself and her children down so badly.

Rosalie tells us there’s “no such thing as a clean break.” This much seems certain.


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