Audiobooks have completely changed the way I handle long trips in the car. I used to always listen to music, but man how that drive would always drag, because I’d just sing along or bop with the beat or play the drums on the steering wheel while always watching the mile markers and counting down the distances to the next city (“okay, an hour to Birmingham and then it’s another hour and a half to Gadsden and then…”) But listening to audiobooks? I was worried that listening might distract me from driving, or that my mind would wander while listening and I would get lost, but it’s really not been a problem at all. Listening to a good book makes the miles and time fly by and next thing I know I’m almost there.
On my recent drive back to New Orleans, I had the great good fortune to listen to Carol Goodman’s The Stranger Behind You, and I must say, Ms. Goodman never disappoints.
I have notice in my professional capacity that when someone makes a point of saying that they’re not lying, that usually means they are.
When the realtor brags that she hasn’t lied about the view, though, I have to admit that her claim is demonstrably true: the view is spectacular. Standing at the elegant bay window it’s as if I am perched on a cliff overlooking the river. There’s nothing between me and the Palisades but water and light. A person who was afraid of heights would be terrified, but heights aren’t what I’m afraid of.
“Can you tell me what ‘state-of-the-art security’ means?”
The realtor takes a nanosecond–an eon in Manhattan real estate time–to recalibrate and then rattles off the specs again: twenty-four-hour doormen, fiber-optic alarm system, security cameras.
“As I mentioned earlier, a high-ranking government official lived here. I can’t tell you who…” Her voice trails off, suggesting she very well could if she chose to. All I’d have to do is raise my eyebrows, smile, lean in a little closer–all the body language that implies it will just be between us girls. I’ve done it a thousand times before with ex-wives and mistresses, corporate CFO’s and underpaid personal assistants. But I don’t. I don’t really care who the very important person was who lived here; I just want to be assured that he–or she–lived here safely and unbothered.
“Can you show me how the cameras work?”
The Stranger Behind You is a post “#metoo” movement book, and in the author’s note in the back, Goodman explained how the book was kind of inspired by the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford during the joke that was the Kavanaugh hearings, and how hearing Dr. Ford describe what happened to her, and how the trauma has haunted her ever since, reconnected her with memories of her own mother, who was sexually assaulted as a teenager and carried that with her the rest of her life, with the PTSD finally taking the form of a horrible anxiety disorder. In the wake of the national conversation about sexual assault and harassment, and the way victims are treated and how rarely they get justice (don’t forget to read and sign my friend Laurie’s change.org petition and read about what happened to her in Dallas in 2018), Goodman sat down to write a book about women’s trauma, and it’s fricking fantastic.
The book focuses on two women on opposite sides of a, for want of a better term, #metoo situation. Joan Lurie, whom we meet first in the above opening, is a young journalist working for Manahatta magazine in the Style section–but she is also working on an expose of a very powerful and influential conservative newspaper publisher, Caspar Osgood, who has a dark and nasty history of sexual harassment going back years. Joan was an intern at Osgood’s paper, and on her first day she spoke to Osgood’s secretary, whom she found sobbing in the bathroom about her ‘affair’ with her boss. The next day both women are fired; and Joan winds up going to Manahatta–whose editor Simon just happens to be an old friend from college of Osgood’s, but things went south for the two since then and they are most definitely not friends. The book opens with Joan looking at an apartment in north Manhattan and wondering about its security–and as the chapter progresses, we discover that Joan recently survived an attempt on her life that happened the night her expose went live…which also happened to be the same night as a Suicide Awareness non-profit’s fundraising gala, hosted by Caspar’s wife Melissa, a charity she became involved with after her son Whit’s suicide attempt three years earlier. The gala is obviously ruined as the news goes live…and then we are into the story.
As I said the other day, I’ve always been interested in the mindset of the women who are tied–whether by marriage or by blood–to men accused of these crimes, like the mom of the Stanford swimmer or Harvey Weinstein’s wife (we know how Bill Cosby’s wife thinks); what do they think, how do they feel, what goes through their heads? Goodman takes an enormous risk by giving us Melissa Osgood as a POV character–how will the readers respond to her? I did feel a great deal of sympathy for her–I always do, regardless, although my primary sympathies are always with the victims–at first, but Goodman does a magnificent job of showing how much easier it is to blame the journalists and the accusers rather than placing the blame where it belongs, and that this way of thinking is also a defensive, self-protective measure; how complicit is she? If everything is a lie and none of it is true, then her husband is innocent and this horrible person has destroyed Melissa’s life, and that’s much easier to deal with than accepting the truth and some of the blame. Melissa’s behavior isn’t great, and she actually becomes obsessed with proving the Joan’s article was a hit piece and all lies, to the point that she actually buys the apartment below Joan’s at the Refuge and begins spying on her.
Joan was also terribly injured when she was attacked the night of her launch party, and while her refusal to report the assault to the police or even seek treatment for an obvious brain injury made me want to throttle her at times, Goodman made it completely understandable. Joan is also not entirely a sympathetic character, either–Goodman makes sure to make both of her women POV characters flawed, imperfect and thoroughly human–and the two women are on a clear collision course.
I’m leaving a lot out here–I strongly believe readers should be able to find the twists and surprises and turns of the story every bit as shocking and marvelous as I did–but there’s yet a third parallel story, connected to the history of the apartment building, that could have just as easily been a stand alone novel of its own.
This book was, as has every Goodman novel I have read, superb. Seriously, y’all need to start reading her if you haven’t already.