Another day, another week, and, while we’re all waiting for winter to retreat and spring finally to hit us with its waves of pleasantness, here I am again with a brand new review, this time of Catherine McKenzie’s latest book, The Good Liar, which is being marketed as a GoodReads “Hottest Thriller of 2018” selection for fans of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (Booklist), and one you’re likely to devour in one sitting (Publishers Weekly, starred review).
Before I start, however, I have a couple of things I have to confess. Truth is, I had never read anything by Catherine McKenzie before. Unforgivable omission, I know. And I only became fully aware of her new book as something other than a vaguely potential read when I was contacted about my missing review by lovely Denelle Catlett, PR Manager for Lake Union Publishing. Then I remembered where I’d seen the book, and why I had requested it in the first place. It was definitely something I had very much wanted to read, for a host of reasons I will get into in a little while.
In her email, Denelle urged me to download my copy before the title archived on April 17th, which I did, with the promise that I’d read and review the title by that date. And all just because Denelle was so absolutely lovely on our exchange of emails that I didn’t have the heart to tell her that, well, I am absolutely overworked and falling asleep on the job. Literally, miserably falling asleep on the job. I kid you not. And then again, when am I ever not behind on my reviews?
Erm… Hmm. Rods and backs. Not a comfortable conversation right now. Quick change of subject, then. So.
That The Good Liar caught my attention when I first came across it on the Goodreads 40 of the Hottest Mysteries & Thrillers of 2018, is all down to my lingering habit of going through hot lists, comparing the titles that “made it” there to those that made it into my own pile of to-be-read titles, and then going through the synopses for those I do not have bookmarked. The Good Liar was one such later addition to my list, on the strength of its synopsis alone, and the questions I instantly had about it.
To begin with, the book deals with a terrible explosion that rips apart a whole residential building, killing most of its inhabitants. It echoed of 9/11, somehow, and I was curious to see how the author treated this thorny issue. Then, the story of that explosion, the moments leading to it, and its aftermath, was being told from the perspectives of three women survivors, a year on from the terrible event that tore their lives apart. I am an addict for stories told from multiple perspectives, so this was a cert for me.
And finally, the book’s themes revolve around issues of perspective, and of truth and lies — which I’ve also got a very soft spot for — and who is telling which, hiding what. Because, erm, have I mentioned the synopsis also quotes secrets being kept by all three female narrators…? Well. There you go. All in all, this seemed a book written for me, and I had hurried to request it. Now that it was here, I couldn’t wait to devour it. I decided to put aside that difficult galley I was having trouble gelling with, and indulge myself in something I knew I would very likely love to read. Not a difficult choice, wouldn’t you agree?
However, just before I move on to the business of introducing you to Catherine McKenzie and her work, and to my review of her title, I’d like to rather publicly thank Denelle Catlett; we further exchanged emails, as I requested a press pack, and Denelle was swift in sending it to me. It’s been a real pleasure dealing with her, and I hope to have plenty more opportunities in the future to do so.
Also, my thanks to Lake Union Publishing for the opportunity to read this title, and for their ready assistance to help me make my blog post as good as I can possibly make it.
And now, courtesy of Lake Union Publishing, here’s Catherine McKenzie telling us all about writing The Good Liar, and the issues she had to confront all the way from germ-of-an-idea to finished draft. It is one of the best pieces about the writing process I have read lately, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Catherine McKenzie: Theft by Finding
I’m not the first to say it, but being a writer can sometimes be a peculiar profession. The things one Googles, for instance (it’s research, NSA!), and the thoughts that can creep into your head at the worst moments while you’re in the middle of living. Or worse, when others are in the middle of dying.
Years and years ago an idea popped into my head. It was an interesting idea—to me at least—and we writers guard our interesting ideas. They don’t happen every day, you know, so when they do, it can be an exciting moment. Only this idea — what if someone used a national tragedy to disappear — came to me on day two or three of the 9/11 coverage, when family members began pinning pictures of the missing to that chain link fence. You know the one. You were probably watching that same coverage and thinking how sad it was, because it was sad. I was thinking it that too, but there was also that nagging thought, prompted by one of those weird little life coincidences that happens sometimes, because someone close to me stood on the top of the World Trade Center two weeks before the bombing. Or, at least, that’s where he told me he was going to be. How did I know? How did anyone know? And then there were all the people being interviewed who were supposed to be on this plane or that… Ack, what the hell was wrong with me?
The moment passed, but the thought lingered. I mean, it must’ve happened sometime in the course of history, right? I couldn’t be the only one who thought this way? And if I was, what did it say about me?
No writer should ask themselves that question, let me tell you.
Years later, I heard a story on the news about a man who’d abandoned his family and then returned twenty years later. I don’t remember all the details, now, but that sparked something, too. It reminded me of my earlier thought and added others. It was sticky, that story, it stuck with me. Because: who would do such a thing? But also: how did they get away with it? Could I write about that? Where did that story go?
I like to tell myself that these types of questions are one of the things that make writers writers. You take something from life—maybe yours, maybe someone else’s—and you make it into art. It’s what painters do—freezing a face on a frame forever (who is Mona Lisa, anyway?). Do they think they’re nuts? Well, Van Gogh for sure, he was crazy, but in general, no. Still, though…
Then I was watching a documentary about a high school football team. They had an historic season, went right to the State finals and won. But the filmmaker couldn’t have known that when he started production or pitched the idea or raised the money. Nor could he have know about the kid from the wrong side of the tracks who would turn his life around. Or the kid from the right side of the tracks who’d descend into drugs. But he was there to tell a story, so he was hoping these sorts of things would happen—he must’ve been. And I thought that this was maybe worse: following someone’s life hoping something bad would happen was definitely worse than simply taking a leap from a real event into my imagination.
It’s so hard to know. I have a book coming out (The Good Liar, April 3). And every major thread in that book is somehow connected to 9/11 because the genesis of the idea for each of its threads is something connected to that event and its aftermath. When I first pitched the idea to my agent, she was worried it was exploitative of 9/11. I protested. What about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close? What about The Goldfinch? Not that I was in the same league as those writers, but surely, it had been enough time for someone to write about something similar?
We bandied back and forth about it. I didn’t want to exploit the survivors and families of the victims. But I also didn’t want to abandon this idea. Is that the definition of exploitation? Probably somewhere. Probably yes.
So I made changes. I set the book in Chicago. I made the tragedy an accident, and I tried not to steal imagery from that fateful day. And then I made it, in part about a film. One of the main characters is shooting a documentary set a year after a large gas explosion tears down a building. He’s following several families who lost people in the tragedy. That’s right; I put the exploiter right there in my story to distract from what I was doing. It’s something I often do. If I name a flaw, you might not notice the flaw.
That’s the theory, anyway.
I can see all the flaws in my work. And though writing is an act of faith—an act of hubris, even—there’s also a vampiric quality to it. When my husband was reading a late draft, I heard him laugh. When I asked him why he was laughing, he mentioned a characteristic of a character that shared something with him. I hadn’t even remembered that I put that in there, and that’s part of the trouble with writing. When you think of that perfect line, or that perfect description, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it’s memory or talent that’s showing up on the page. (Like that line right there. I think I made it up, but just in case, I’m pointing it out.)
Publishing a book is an odd experience. I wrote The Good Liar in 2016, and then edited it in the first half of 2017. It was “done” six months ago. And so now it sits in the hands of a few readers who get early copies, their reviews coming in a couple at a time on blogs and Goodreads. Every time someone mentions a “9/11-like event” I hold my breath. Is this the review that’s going to call me out? Tell me I didn’t do my research? That I’m profiting off of someone else’s pain?
Life is pain. I do know I stole that—from The Princess Bride to be exact. And writing is pain too, the cataloguing of it, the transposing. Does it make a difference if it’s mine or someone else’s? Of course I get that it does, but in the selfish way of writers. By this I mean: the characters in the book are mine, “people” I invented. If you think they could be real—if you “like” them or don’t, for example—I win. I did my job. Once the book is done, I release them and then they are free to do what they want out in the world. They can make you feel good or bad or angry or sad or nothing at all.
And me? I’m pointing out my flaws.
About Catherine McKenzie:
A graduate of McGill University in History and Law, Catherine is a partner in a litigation boutique in Montreal, where she was born and raised. Catherine’s novels, SPIN, ARRANGED, FORGOTTEN, HIDDEN, SMOKE and FRACTURED, are bestsellers and have been translated into numerous languages, including French, German, Portuguese, Polish, Turkish, Slovakian and Czech. SMOKE was named one of the Top 100 Books in 2015 by Amazon and one of the Best Books of October 2015 by Goodreads. FRACTURED was named one of the Best Books of October 2016 by Goodreads.
Catherine’s first book writing as Julie Apple (the protagonist in FRACTURED), THE MURDER GAME, was released in November, 2016. SPIN has been optioned for a television series. A short film of ARRANGED was made in 2014 and won a Canadian National Screen Institute Award. Catherine was on set while they filmed it. It was one of the highlights of her writing life.
Catherine’s next novel, THE GOOD LIAR, will be published on April 3, 2018.
An avid skier and runner, Catherine climbed the Grand Teton in 2014.
And if you want to know how she has time to do all that, the answer is: robots.
about The Good Liar:
The Good Liar by Catherine McKenzie has published on April 3rd on the US (Hardcover US$ 14.95 Paperback US$ 10.99 Kindle US$ 4.29 ), Canada (Hardcover CND$ 28.75 Paperback CND$ 21.87), and the UK (Hardcover £16.43 Paperback £4.99 Kindle £4.99).
and now, for my humble part on this blog post…
This title was rather kindly sent to me by the publishers, Lake Union Publishing, for review consideration. My review is also being published to NetGalley, GoodReads, Amazon, LinkedIn, and my other social media accounts.
Can you hide a secret with the whole world watching?
When an explosion rips apart a Chicago building, the lives of three women are forever altered.
A year later, Cecily is in mourning. She was supposed to be in the building that day. Instead, she stood on the street and witnessed it going down, with her husband and best friend inside. Kate, now living thousands of miles away, fled the disaster and is hoping that her past won’t catch up with her. And Franny, a young woman in search of her birth mother, watched the horror unfold on the morning news, knowing that the woman she was so desperate to reconnect with was in the building.
Now, despite the marks left by the tragedy, they all seem safe. But as its anniversary dominates the media, the memories of that terrifying morning become dangerous triggers. All these women are guarding important secrets. Just how far will they go to keep them?
“With twists and turns, the lives of three women intersect in the most unexpected ways during the aftermath of a tragedy. Thought-provoking, suspenseful, and mysterious, The Good Liar is a true page-turner that explores the ways stories are connected and created, and what can be hidden underneath. This is a book you won’t be able to put down!” ~ Megan Miranda (All the Missing Girls, The Perfect Stranger)
“A riveting story that revolves around the aftermath of a national tragedy: three women, three separate yet deftly intertwined lives. I adored the look at the story behind the story, the background lives of the women we so often see in the news. The twists are shocking, the characters are well drawn but unpredictable, and the conclusion is as poignant as it is surprising. The Good Liar is thrilling, captivating, and not to be missed!” ~ Kate Moretti (The Vanishing Year, The Blackbird Season)
“Lines will be crossed and secrets revealed when tragedy intersects three women in The Good Liar, a guilty pleasure you won’t be able to put down until the very last page. A must read!” ~ Liz Fenton & Lisa Steinke (The Good Widow)
“For many years, Catherine McKenzie has been writing some of the best thrillers around. She’s outdone herself with The Good Liar, the powerful and heartbreaking story of the painful aftermath of a national tragedy. It’s sharply written with engaging characters and twists and surprises up until the very last page. A smart, fast-paced, and riveting thriller!” —David Bell (Bring Her Home)
“In her latest, Catherine McKenzie continues to prove she’s a master at crafting psychological thrillers. In The Good Liar, we follow three women—Cecily, Kate, and Franny—in the aftermath of a horrific tragedy through their web of lies, secrets, and deceit. The story is layered with superb twists and expert pacing, deftly building in suspense until its stunner of an ending. A compulsive read that kept me guessing!” ~ Kerry Lonsdale (Everything We Left Behind and Everything We Keep)
“In The Good Liar, the lives of three women become entangled in a single tragedy. With her compelling characters, whip-smart dialogue and edge-of-your-seat pacing, McKenzie asks how well we know those around us—even the people we love the most.” ~ Paula Treick DeBoard (Here We Lie, The Drowning Girls)
“Put The Good Liar at the top of your summer must-read list. Catherine McKenzie isn’t just a talented storyteller; she has a knack for asking the questions every woman secretly asks, and answering with a story that expresses our collective dreams and fears. The Good Liar brilliantly weaves three stories about regular women coping with the aftermath of a tragedy. But this book is far more than a first-rate page turner; it’s an exploration of the cost of keeping secrets, how the bonds between women both chafe and comfort, and how in the midst of the terror and beauty that is life, we find grace.” ~ Allison Leotta (The Last Good Girl)
“Catherine McKenzie has done it again with her latest novel, The Good Liar. In yet another page-turner, three women, linked by trauma, transform from images seen through the camera’s lens into human and relatable characters as their layered lives come into focus. As you settle in for this tense and compelling ride, you’ll start to question who ‘the good liar’ really is—Cecily, Kate, witnesses, the media, friends, family, or maybe even Catherine McKenzie herself.” ~ Emily Bleeker (Wreckage, When I’m Gone)
I was curious to find out how Catherine McKenzie had addressed that massive white elephant in the room: the maybe-a-bit-too-close-for-comfort similarity to a real life, truly catastrophic event such as 9/11 was not so long ago.
There were of course issues of good taste and decorum, but also the question of how moral it is for a writer to make use of (= exploit?) such historical events, and real life details, as their inspiration, when they are still so recent and alive in people’s memories, and especially when faced with the reality of survivors and the family members of victims from the disaster, and their still raw grief. It would take a special sensibility to pull it off, I told myself, so let’s see what Ms McKenzie did of it.
And then I received the press pack from the publishers, and read the above author’s article. Being a writer myself, I recognised Catherine McKenzie’s words and fully identified with them. Writers have to make choices which often may no be very popular, or ideas that might prove most difficult, or even impossible, to pull off successfully. We question our judgement permanently.
I loved Catherine McKenzie’s choice of departing premise for this book; to put it simply:
“The idea for this novel has been percolating in McKenzie’s mind for years and began with this thought: What if someone used a national tragedy to run away from their life? Later, she discovered stories about people faking their way into tragedies. And finally, she learned of a 9/11 widow whose divorce was about to be finalized right before the towers fell. From there, she thought what-if, and began writing THE GOOD LIAR. An irresistible look at ordinary people in extraordinary situations.”
Half way through it, I already knew I loved how Catherine McKenzie went about telling her story. It begins by being a story of possibilities — yes, catastrophic events happen. People are caught in them, and their aftermath. Suffering of some degree is inevitable. When these things happen, the frontier between the private and the public becomes, seemingly also inevitably in our day and age, blurred. The media and the public at large suddenly feel an entitlement to to your grief, an ownership of you and your story. And in the middle of all the horror, there will always be someone ready to take advantage, in any way they can, from some aspect of it. And this is the story Catherine McKenzie tells, very skilfully and with sensitivity, without once blurring the lines between a 9/11-type reality and her fictional universe.
The main characters, the three women around which the action centres, are all well drawn and fleshed out, very believable — very real and alive. They are three women caught out by the events and by their own lives, and the lies they are all living in, and who try to resolve the conflicts they’re caught in in the only way they can or know best.
Cecily, the main character, chooses to come clean, and thereby wiping her own slate clean. She’s a very likeable character, and we understand why she did what she did. We get to see inside her head and her heart, and decide from very early on that, whatever she’s trying to keep away from the public eye, it is not criminal or strenuously morally reprehensible. We forgive her lie of omission, because we understand it. We love her.
Kaytlin is a damaged woman, unable to deal with her past, with her damage, or with her present. She is a profoundly troubled and unhappy person, as a woman, as a wife, as a mother. She once again succumbs to her unresolved mental health problem and, having miraculous escaped with her life, in an act of folly she decides to disappear in the aftermath of the building explosion. Thus she places herself in a situation from which there is no come back, but which she tells herself is for the better and an act of real love. We understand her, but deplore her choice of action.
And Franny… well, while one feels slightly sorry for Franny for having been so blatantly rejected, we cannot possible like her, not even before we learn the full extent of her actions. She’s the little sociopath in the basket, ruining everybody else’s apples. And she’s so well designed as a character that we absolutely hate her, and take everything she says with a tonne of pinches of salt. And then we understand that it all goes far deeper, and she is a full blown psychopath. We can’t spare a single thought for her.
But I do urge you to seriously think about this book as your next read. It’s psychological and suspenseful, and pulls you in from the beginning. You’re left hanging there, knowing there is something below the surface, and you try to figure those undercurrents out, but there’s so much to consider. And you have to keep reading, just so you finally see your suspicions confirmed… or be completely bowled over by the last twist in the narrative.
Great commuting literature, but watch out for you stop. Moreover, it leaves you wanting to get to know everything about Catherine McKenzie’s writing. The question now is, which of her titles do I pick up next…?
Genre pegging: General Fiction / Women’s Fiction
Verdict: a perfectly riveting, thought-provoking read
Shelves: general fiction; thrillers;