Vanessa has always found it easy to pretend to be somebody different, somebody better. When things get tough in her real life, all she has to do is throw on some nicer clothes, adopt a new accent and she can escape.
That’s how it started: looking round houses she couldn’t possibly afford. Harmless fun really. Until it wasn’t.
Because a man who lived in one of those houses is dead.
And everyone thinks Vanessa killed him…
Nuala Ellwood writes fantastic thrillers, and I was excited to be offered the chance to read her latest offering – The Perfect Life – ahead of its publication in July via Netgalley.
As with many such novels, it’s split into “now” and “then” sections that reveal subtle hints about changes in the protagonist’s life in that period, without revealing exactly what happens until much later in the novel. The “then” sections introduce us to Vanessa Adams – a bright and vivacious young woman who seems to have everything going for her. When she meets Connor on a night out, it feels as though another milestone has been achieved as in him she sees someone with whom she might eventually settle down and start her own family. The “now” sections are set some months later and show a hugely different Vanessa. She is living with her sister, is out of work, and seems to be a mere shadow of her former self. As the story unfolds, we learn how she got there…
Vanessa is an interesting character – one who is most definitely flawed, but with an interesting backstory. Vanessa’s mother died when she was 14, leaving her in the care of a disinterested father, particularly after he finds a new partner whose attitude is very much one of “three’s a crowd”. Looked after largely by her older sister, Georgie, Vanessa comes to rely upon her a great deal throughout her life and the two form a close bond despite the difference in their ages. I felt that the backstory was well developed. It makes Vanessa a sympathetic character and helps to explain some of her behaviour as an adult – some of which is a little puzzling – as she searches for the perfect family, the perfect home, and indeed the perfect life.
As we see things in Vanessa’s life begin to deteriorate, she develops something of an unusual habit – she likes to visit houses that she can’t possibly afford, creating new personas and backstories for each visit and leaving a string of disappointed estate agents in her wake. I don’t know if this is the reaction Ellwood was aiming for, but I found it quite amusing, particularly in the early attempts when she forgets her backstory or fumbles the introductions. While it’s not something I’d do, I can appreciate the desire to look around a home that’s been put on the market, particularly when it’s one that’s priced in the high-six to seven-digit figure range. It’s a glimpse into how the other half live, and I think that we’ve all seen that one house that we’d happily sacrifice a limb to have the opportunity to nosy around. This behaviour does ultimately land her in trouble with the police, however, when a seller is found dead in his own home, and Vanessa a prime suspect.
This behaviour does leave some room for doubt as to whether Vanessa’s situation is one of her own making or not. Ellwood casts doubt upon the character, particularly after revelations from the police early on in the novel, which did leave me wondering as to the cause of her demise. This doesn’t last long – it’s soon very apparent what is happening and the reasons behind Vanessa’s change in circumstances. It’s not always a pleasant story to read, but it is very well handled and incredibly gripping. It’s a story that hooks you in from the beginning, and throughout I couldn’t wait to find out exactly what was going on and what the outcome would be.
The Perfect Life is a novel that I enjoyed throughout. There are plenty of questions to be answered to keep the reader engaged, as well as wondering whether justice would ultimately be served – something which is by no means guaranteed.
The Perfect Life will be published on 22 July by Penguin. Many thanks to Ellie Hudson and the publisher for the opportunity to read and review ahead of publication via Netgalley.
Also by Nuala Ellwood: