Hank Phillippi Ryan: The House Guest

Awhile ago, I thought about the elements of a novel that make it a (good) suspense novel, rather than a straight mystery.  Hank Phillippi Ryan’s new novel, The House Guest, hits these marks pretty perfectly, so I thought it would be fun to enumerate them.  The first element, to me, is “upping the ante.”  By this I mean the main character has to have some kind of mission which is tied to a deeply felt allegiance.  In the case of this novel, the main character, Alyssa Macallen, is a society wife who has been unceremoniously dumped by her husband.  Because Ryan is excellent at making a reader care about her characters, you begin to care about Alyssa, as she’s living on a knife’s edge, unsure of which way her world will implode.

When Alyssa is sitting in a bar one night she strikes up an unlikely conversation with another woman whose troubles seem worse than her own.  There are few things more bonding than sharing your troubles with a person in a similar situation, and it’s not long before Alyssa invites the woman, Bree, to stay in her guest house. There are all kinds of ways this could go south, of course, and Alyssa and Bree’s story involves the next essential element, the twist.  There are several, and they are all good ones.

The next element: a seemingly unsolvable problem.  When it becomes clear that Bill is being investigated by the FBI, Alyssa is faced with a conundrum.  Does she cooperate?  Does she warn Bill?  And either way, does her life immediately degrade into utter poverty and loss? Bree and her friend – boyfriend? – Dez advise her to cooperate, but Alyssa eventually turns to an old law school buddy to help her figure out what she should do.  Bree and Dez are still wild cards, upping the tension and suspense of the story.

The next element, and I think this one is key, is specificity.  Ryan’s sweet spot (something she shares with Harlan Coben) is depicting and dissecting a certain slice of society.  Coben’s is more the middle class, and Ryan’s is the upper class.  Alyssa is a wealthy woman who moves in a rarified stratum of society, and Ryan is expert at depicting this way of life, down to wearing the right Ferragamo shoes.  There’s a scene in a country club that’s absolutely delicious.  In the future, if anthropologists want to study what upper class life was like in the early 21st century, Ryan’s books are a great starting point.

And lastly, there’s pace. Can you put the book down?  If your answer is “no” the author has done his or her job.  Again, Ryan nails it.  The House Guest is a compulsive read.  It’s more than that as well -there’s also a strong theme of female agency.  Both Alyssa and Bree, for different reasons, are underestimated or overlooked.  Alyssa has basically been her husband’s beautiful accessory, and she’s discovering that without him around, she doesn’t have much of an identity.  In a lot of ways, this novel is the story of her journey of finding both her identity and her inherent strength.  This is another wonderful read from a master of suspense – and character.