The Stepdaughter is the fourth book I’ve read by Debbie Howells and it sat on my iPad for months and months as I’d believed its publication was deferred until next year. (And I only just discovered it wasn’t / isn’t.)
I very much enjoyed Howells’ first psychological thriller, The Bones of You, in particular.
Her latest is another complex story of relationships and of secrets and lies. I should also mention that it features domestic violence and references to child pornography (though no details etc).
by Debbie Howells
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
Genres: Psychological Thriller, Thriller / Suspense
When Elise Buckley moved with her family to Abingworth, it was supposed to be a new start. She hoped the little English village, with its scattering of houses, pub, and village church, wouldn't offer enough opportunity for her doctor husband, Andrew, to continue having affairs. Apparently, she was wrong. Now Elise's only goal is to maintain the facade of a happy homelife for their teenage daughter, Niamh.
When the body of Niamh's best friend, Hollie, is found, the entire village is rocked. Elise, though generally distrustful since Andrew's infidelity, believed that Hollie was loved by her father and stepmother. Yet there was something unsettling beneath the girl's smile. As the police investigation stalls amid disjointed evidence, it's Niamh who unknowingly holds the key . . .
This book unfolds from the points of view of Elise, a flight attendant; her daughter Niamh; and (later) Nicki, a detective sergeant investigating Hollie’s death. I liked that Elise and Niamh’s thoughts crossed over in time a little so you got different perspectives of the same event or discussion and I think this is one of the book’s strengths.
Howells also cleverly unpicks Elise’s marital issues. We know there’s infidelity as Elise tells us that off the bat but I felt initially she was unfairly antagonistic towards her husband Andrew and very petty. I didn’t understand why she stayed in the relationship. She talks about wanting to keep things normal for Niamh, but it seems like a really toxic environment for them all. Things change however and we learn we’ve only seen one side of Andrew and their marriage. That being said, I wasn’t sure the behaviour of the couple (and Elise’s thoughts to which we’re privy) were entirely consistent throughout the novel.
We meet Hollie before her unfortunate demise and she’s obviously very troubled, though – like those around her – we’re unsure if she’s being overly-dramatic.
Howells offers a number of potential plot-lines and suspects here so we’re kept guessing.
There’s reference to someone called Dylan – which I must admit I found distracting as he was mentioned before any context was provided. And then of course there’s Andrew’s infidelity, his treatment of Elise, Hollie’s father’s financial woes and dodgy investments.
Howells paces this really well and keeps the surprises coming and adds in a few final twists. Both mother and daughter are keeping secrets from us throughout most of the novel. Niamh is obvious about it but Elise less-so. And of course we’re unsure if those secrets play a role in Hollie’s death and all that came before it.
I was perhaps a little confused about some of the backstories, including that of Hollie’s mother (as opposed to her step-mother). Some of the timing didn’t seem to fit. It’s also highly likely I missed something about Andrew’s history and the couple’s decision to move to Abingworth in the first place.
In some ways we’re forced to consider who we trust and why here, and wonder if the people we assume to be ‘good’ are actually ‘bad’? Or at least, not innocent.
The Stepdaughter by Debbie Howells was published by Kensington Publishing Corp and is now available.
I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.