In this family, everyone is keeping secrets – even the dead.
In the quiet, wealthy enclave of Brecken Hill, an older couple is brutally murdered hours after a tense Easter dinner with their three adult children.
Who, of course, are devastated.
Or are they? They each stand to inherit millions. They were never a happy family, thanks to their vindictive father and neglectful mother, but perhaps one of them is more disturbed than anyone knew.
Did someone snap after that dreadful evening? Or did another person appear later that night with the worst of intentions?
That must be what happened. After all, if one of the family were capable of something as gruesome as this, you’d know.
I’ve mentioned previously on the blog that, after reading a small glut of them, I was suffering from a severe case of thriller fatigue. As a result, I’ve not read any of Shari Lapena’s books despite having had them recommended to me by several of my favourite BookTubers, bloggers, and friends. So when the opportunity arose to be part of the blog tour for Shari’s latest novel, Not a Happy Family, I was instantly interested. And when the plot sounded like a combination of two of my favourite thriller tropes (Family Secrets meets Rich People Problems anyone?), I was even more eager to jump right in and get reading!
With an opening that features the world’s most horrendous family dinner, Not a Happily Family makes swift work of introducing us to the victims – vindictive patriarch Fred Merton and his ineffectual wife Sheila – and our primary suspects, comprising of the Merton’s three adult children Catherine, Dan, and Jenna, their respective partners Ted, Lisa, and Jake, and the family’s former nanny-cum-cleaner Irena.
A few short hours after the ending of that tense and unpleasant dinner, Fred and Sheila Merton are dead in an apparent robbery – but why would a robber slit Fred’s throat and then stab him multiple times in a vicious and seemingly uncontrollable rage? When detectives Reyes and Barr arrive on the scene, they immediately think that something feels wrong about this crime scene. And when it turns out that Fred Merton intended to change his will, it become apparent that someone much closer to the victims may have had a very good reason for wanting them dead.
There are shades of Knives Out in Shari Lapena’s portrayal of the deliciously dysfunctional Merton family, none of whom make for especially sympathetic protagonists – but all of whom held me in grim fascination as I read. Fred Merton is selfish, vindictive, and controlling, ably assisted by his ineffectual and neglectful wife Sheila. Their children, despite being grown up, remain trapped in long-established patterns: Catherine, the ‘favourite’ is a successful doctor, middle child Dan remains the family failure, and wild child Jenna is living it up off her parents’ allowance. And that’s before adding in Fred’s rapacious sister Audrey and the other skeletons in the family closet!
As with Knives Out, it turns out that all of the Merton children had good reason to want their parents dead – and as the story progresses, all of them will tie themselves – and those around them – up in a tangled web of secrets, lies, allegiances, and betrayals. All of which makes for a fast-paced and suspenseful read!
With perfect pacing, Shari Lapena gradually peels back the layers of this maladjusted family setup whilst simultaneously ratcheting up the domestic tension and suburban paranoia. With all the secrets and lies involved, I genuinely had no idea which of the Merton siblings might have committed the crime and the final reveal, when it came, was brilliant – as was the final, unexpected, twist in the tale!
I often struggle to enjoy novels with unsympathetic narrators but, despite non of the characters being especially worthy of sympathy in Not a Happy Family, I was drawn towards finding out what happened and found myself compulsively turning the pages to the end long after what should have been my bedtime! Lapena certainly knows how to control the pace – and how to close her chapters on a cliff-hanger!
Whilst this was my first Shari Lapena thriller, it certainly won’t be my last. Although not the most demanding of mysteries, Not a Happy Family held 100% of my interest while I was reading it and made for a compulsive read. With a compelling narrative, some delightfully awful characters, and a page-turning pace, this is the perfect read for whiling away a day at the beach or a weekend in a sunny garden. Existing fans of Lapena’s work will undoubtedly find much to enjoy here – and any thriller fans who have not yet discovered her work should seek to speedily rectify that with this book!
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 11 August 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.
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