Lisa Unger's new thriller Die for You is a duel between two storytellers.
Protagonist Isabel Connelly is a bestselling novelist who prides herself on her powers of observation. At home she is Mrs. Raine, living in an elegant Manhattan apartment with her husband, Marcus Raine, a Czech immigrant who has worked his way up to partner in a successful software design firm.
It's a marriage that reads like a romance novel: The beautiful young couple met when he came to one of her book signings and swept her off her feet. Five years later, despite a miscarriage and a few other rough patches, they're still making love in the mornings and cooing over cappuccino before they head off to work.
Until the morning Marcus heads off to work and never comes home. Isabel frets through the night, then goes to his office the next morning to find no Marcus, only his extremely nervous partner. When a bunch of FBI agents burst in and start dismantling the place, Isabel really gets scared. Then she realizes they're not FBI agents — just before one of them knocks her out with a gun.
When Isabel awakes in the emergency room with an ugly gash in her head and her worried family gathered around her, one thing is clear: Marcus Raine is not who he seemed to be. His whole relationship with Isabel has been one long, carefully constructed story — and she's fallen for it.
Isabel is heartbroken, stunned, puzzled but, perhaps more than anything else, she's angry. Marcus has left her with no explanation, the police investigation is revealing worse things by the minute, and a lot of money is missing, not all of it Isabel's. But what has her really steamed as a writer is that she's been fooled — that Marcus' spin on reality has trumped hers for five years.
So, rather than go home to nurse that head wound and her dignity, she gives the cops the slip and goes after Marcus herself. It's a chase that races through Manhattan and then across the Atlantic to the Czech Republic and the dismal orphanage where Marcus was raised and to medieval, mysterious Prague, where, thanks to a dying man's whisper, Isabel thinks she can track down the man she knew as Marcus Raine.
Unger, who lives in the Tampa Bay area, often plots her bestselling books around issues of identity, mistaken, hidden or forgotten. She gives it another fresh spin in Die for You, and she also fleshes out the book's characters convincingly through their family relationships.
Isabel's sister, Linda, is a successful artist and photographer, with an adoring husband and two charming kids. But her life isn't what it appears to be, either. She's involved in an affair with an art critic (whom she met when he panned one of her exhibitions — how's that for a good start?) that is spinning out of her control. It's a secret she's desperate to keep from everyone, her sister included (maybe Isabel needs to rethink her pride in her powers of observation).
Both sisters are haunted by the ghost of their charming, distant father, who killed himself when they were girls, a loss that colors their own marriages decades later. That sibling bond and parental loss are echoed in Marcus' relationship with his brother, Ivan; the boys were abandoned by their mother.
Unger constructs Die for You in a fast-paced cinematic style, with relatively brief scenes seen from the points of view of Isabel, Linda, Marcus and several other characters. She deftly intensifies the tension by showing us one character who knows something another urgently needs to know, and by cutting back and forth between flashback and present tense.
By drawing us into the history of Isabel's marriage as well as the current state of Linda's, Die for You suggests that, although Marcus' betrayal is an extreme case, we all tell each other stories in our most intimate relationships. For Isabel and Marcus, the question of who gets to write the last chapter is a deadly one.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.