In “Beware the Woman,” crime fiction virtuoso Megan Abbott rockets the Gothic novel into the 21st century.
The genre is a natural for Abbott, whose irresistible, Gothic-tinged psychological thrillers include “The Turnout,” “You Will Know Me” and “Dare Me,” which became a hit Netfllix movie.
Since its origins in the 18th century, the Gothic tale has often built horror upon the invasion or imprisonment of women’s bodies, their loss of personal autonomy to evil forces — see Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” or Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” for memorable early examples.
As this book begins, Jacy Ash, an elementary school teacher, is almost giddy with joy over how her life has changed. After a whirlwind courtship and impulsive wedding, she’s 13 weeks pregnant.
“I’ve had men in love with me before,” she tells the reader, “but it never felt like this. Never both of us in the same way at the same time, like two spiders sewing a silken web together.”
Jed is handsome and kind and a lusty lover. Jacy is fascinated by his work — he jokingly calls himself a tube bender, but he’s a neon artist, making and restoring signs and other objects from “heat and light.”
Now they’re driving from their home in New York to see Jed’s father, who lives in the deep woods of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where Jed grew up. Jacy has met Dr. Ash once, in the city, but she’s eager to get to know him better.
The “patrician” Dr. Ash is a gracious host, fussing over sofa pillows for Jacy, serving her virgin cocktails and going on about how thrilled he is to be having a grandson — he’s sure it’s a boy even though Jacy and Jed have avoided finding out the gender.
Dr. Ash’s home in the woods is no rustic cabin but a big, modern, handsome house. It does have one characteristic that’s an omen of trouble ahead in contemporary crime fiction: no Wi-Fi, no cell signal.
It’s also the kind of house that needs a housekeeper, and her name is Mrs. Brandt. She appears silently as Jacy, Jed and Dr. Ash are chatting.
“’And this is your bride.’ She turned to me, sharp jawed and her eyes narrow and piercingly blue. A woman of unplaceable middle age who looked so cool despite her heavy hair, deep red and gathered tight and high, despite her formal appearance, the crisp white shirt, collar and cuffs blade sharp, a stiff long skirt, full and feminine.”
Jacy tries to puzzle out the nature of the relationship between Mrs. Brandt and Dr. Ash — everyone calls him that, even though he stopped practicing medicine years ago, after Jed’s mother died. Her death is another mystery. Jed seems to know little about it, and Jacy is startled to learn from Dr. Ash that she died in childbirth — and that Mrs. Brandt was her closest friend.
Add to that a father-son bond that looks far more complex than Jacy expected. Dr. Ash clearly doesn’t take his son’s career seriously, and in just a few days Jed seems to regress to a kind of sulky adolescence. He also starts hanging out with a boyhood pal known as Randy the Ripper, going on jaunts to shoot pool at a bar and to ride off-road — jaunts to which Jacy is definitely not invited.
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Jacy’s mother, who raised her daughter alone, has told her, “Honey, we all marry strangers.” Jacy is starting to believe it.
Her pregnancy has been a main topic of conversation since they arrived, and she’s leaned into it. “’Great,’ I said, my hand on my belly again. When did I become this woman, her hand forever on her womb like some dauntless sister wife on the plains?”
Then her pregnancy becomes the only topic, and the family visit turns into a nightmare.
Abbott has constructed the plot of “Beware the Woman” with such wicked skill that it’s tough to say much more about what happens without giving away its many sharply honed twists and whiplash surprises. Her vivid prose and white-knuckle pacing accelerate the book to its last shock.
As Jacy fights to find someone she can trust, she also learns what to hold close. “That was part of being female, wasn’t it? Intuiting, each time, what men didn’t want to know.
“All the things men really didn’t want to know.”
Beware the Woman
By Megan Abbott
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 304 pages, $28