Amy Gutman, The Anniversary (Little Brown 2003)
I am generally skeptical of thrillers that involve wide-ranging conspiracies. In one such type of thrillers, people have planned for years to take revenge on others, and carry out a master plan, step by calculated step, to effect their revenge.
Frankly, that doesn't seem to be the way people act in real life. In reality, people rarely have the ability or wherewithal to do more than muddle through their daily lives. And when revenge does happen, it's often emotional and messy, not long-planned and neat. (Douglas Kennedy's "The Big Picture," for my money, is one of the best examples of a plot that reflects this reality: There, a lawyer rashly and suddenly kills his wife's lover, then has to deal with the immediate consequences.)
So when I read the book jacket of Amy Gutman's new thriller, The Anniversary, I remained skeptical. As the jacket explains, the premise of The Anniversary is the very type of long-planned revenge I tend to find implausible: "It's been five years since the execution of Steven Gage, a devious, charming psychopath who took the lives of more than a hundred women . . . . But someone hasn't moved on. On the fifth anniversary of Steven's death, each of the three women [who had previous connections to Gage] gets a private note ... a chilling message that lets them all know that they haven't been forgotten, and that in someone's dark imagination, Gage's legacy of terror lives on."
Fortunately, that overwrought description does not do justice to The Anniversary. Indeed, the first 80% of so of the book is very well done. Unfortunately, the ending - and, for the reader, the payoff - is unconvincing.
Strong Portraits of Three Woman in Jeopardy
The Anniversary starts off quite well. It focuses on three women. One is Callie, Gage's former girlfriend, who now lives in anonymity with her daughter in a small town in Massachusetts. Another is Melanie, one of the lawyers who represented Gage on appeal, now bucking for partner at a large New York firm. The third is Diane, a former journalist turned true-crime writer, whose big break came when she wrote a bestseller about the Gage case.
All three women have important connections to Gage - and, as they discover, to each other. And all three receive ominous notes on the anniversary of Gage's death. Meanwhile, all three become the target of various attacks and threatening communications. Since Gage himself is dead they are perplexed as to who could be sending the notes.
To intensify matters, people around the three women have begun acting strangely. Callie, in particular, notices odd behavior on the part of her boyfriend Rick, a local police officer, and a student with whom she works in the local college development office.
Much of Gutman's skill, however, seems to disappear when one reaches the novel's conclusion.
A Strong Thriller Flawed By a Very Disappointing Ending
Even though The Anniversary is not my favorite type of novel, I found myself reading the book with interest, and feeling suspense as the conclusion neared. Most of this reading was done on New York's A subway line, as I returned home from Kennedy Airport (a long ride, for those of you who have not experienced it), and this book was an excellent diversion: well-written and fast-paced. In fact, it was good enough that I finished it in one reading - continuing to read even after arriving home.
The problem with this book is its ending, which is nothing short of awful. All thrillers need red herrings, and there wouldn't be much thrill if the actual culprit was someone who had been obvious all along. But here, the culprit comes much too far out of left field to be believable. Also, part of the fun of a thriller is the reader's chance to test his or her ability to guess which of the suspects is really the culprit. But no reader could have guessed this culprit. And that's a problem: Just as the culprit shouldn't be too obvious, the culprit also shouldn't be too obscure, either.
Even worse that the fact that no reader could possibly guess this culprit, is the fact that he culprit explains his/her actions by citing reasons that - even now - I'm not quite sure I fully comprehend. This unconvincing "solution" to the mystery cheapens the quality of the story-telling that came earlier.
Another key task of a thriller writer - besides coming up with a plausible but not easily guessable culprit - is explaining why the other suspects, each of whom turns out not to be the culprit, were behaving so suspiciously. Here, too, Gutman falters. The novel's explanations for why some of the important characters have been acting strangely are so cheesy and needlessly melodramatic that I actually put down the book and rolled my eyes.
An Enjoyable Diversion That Fails to Realize Its Promise
The bottom line is that The Anniversary is a fine diversion for someone riding the subway, taking a plane trip or lying on the beach. If you see it in an airport bookstore once it comes out in paperback, I don't think you'll regret picking it up to amuse you during your journey.
Yet the poorly-handled climax and ending prevent this book from realizing the promise it offers. The Anniversary might have been a good example of how even well-worn plot devices can still be entertaining when artfully handled. Instead, it simply indicates that even strong storytelling toward the beginning of a book can be undone by endings that try too hard to surprise the reader.