A few years ago, I went through a Mary Kubica phase, where I devoured all of her books in short order. I loved her flawed female protagonists, quick pacing, the deep-seated psychological issues, and all the twists and turns in each of her books, or at least in The Good Girl and Pretty Baby. I wasn’t as keen on Every Last Lie, which came out last year, but I’ve tried to push that one aside in my memory. Since my original Kubica binge, I’ve found myself comparing every psychological thriller to hers, and usually they come up short.
Thus, when I saw When the Lights Go Out on NetGalley, I immediately requested it. Usually, it takes me a bit to get to a book as I’ve got quite a queue, but Kubica? She skips to the front of the line, regardless of how far away the publication date is set.
Her newest effort begins much like her previous fare, with a young woman at the center of the story, struggling to make sense of the world around her. In this case, our ‘heroine’ is Jessie Sloane, who is trying to get her life back on track after taking a detour to take care of her ailing mother, Eden. The book alternates POVs, between these two women, with Jessie in the present, and Eden’s story taking place twenty years prior. Kubica does a great job building tension, though I found the pacing here to be much slower than her previous books, with a lot of redundancy. We get it, Eden desperately wants a baby and the pressure is causing her marriage to crumble, while Jessie is struggling with insomnia and can’t seem to solve the mystery of her identity. After a while, what started out as a solid premise and intriguing, mysterious characters, drifted into pleads of “MOVE THE PLOT ALONG ALREADY”.
But the slow burn pacing isn’t the worst thing about this novel. It’s not even really that big of a deal, since the author is still quite talented and engaging, even when she’s not progressing things. But that ending. If you’ve read pretty much any other review of this book, you already know the ending is atrocious. I’ve yet to see one detailed review that is favorable of the ‘twist’ at the end. To me, it’s a cheap cop-out, and I cannot believe an experienced writer like Mary Kubica would resort to it. The very first thing you learn in any writing course, whether it be in literature or screenwriting, is “come up with an ending– don’t lead us by the nose for hundreds of pages and then say “never mind, it was all a dream,”. I’m not even being hyperbolic here– having gotten my Master’s in Creative Writing, I can tell you that almost every individual class I’ve taken has addressed this specific crutch. And I always thought “NO ONE ACTUALLY DOES THAT, QUIT TEACHING IT!”, but apparently people do do that. Even good writers.
To me, it seems like one of two things happened here:
Kubica wanted to ‘break out’ of her typical fare and ‘prove’ she could write with the big boys– that she could be literary and experimental, flouting conventional wisdom and doing it so well that it doesn’t matter if she breaks the rules.
Kubica’s reps wanted her to churn out a novel this year, since psychological thrillers are continuing to sell like gangbusters, so she rushed through this, and the powers-that-be approved it because they were on a publication deadline and assumed readers would gloss over it or be lenient because Kubica’s still one of the most talented in the genre.
If the former, I applaud the author for trying something new and being ambitious, but I still don’t think it worked. If the latter, I applaud the author for making her deadline, but I’d like to go on the record to state that we readers will not accept subpar writing and plotting. Hold the presses until it’s right. To let this novel, which COULD have been very good had it been edited viciously, see the light of day in this premature state is egregious. And in case you’re thinking I’m being too harsh on the lazy publishing here, look at that cover art. Could it be any more cliche and artless? It looks like a bad YA novel. Come on, guys.
Rating: 3/5 stars, and only because I’m still a Kubica fan and will continue to support her and give her the benefit of the doubt.