BEWARE THE WOMAN, by Megan Abbott
Oh, to possess the heedless innocence of a character in a horror movie. We wring our hands like maiden aunts as they mosey blithely into danger: What could possibly go wrong in this cobwebbed basement/cabin in the woods/polygamist doomsday cult?
Even the inanimate objects in Megan Abbott’s “Beware the Woman,” though, can’t seem to stop screaming at the novel’s almost perversely compliant narrator, Jacy, that the life she believes to be a romantic dramedy has tipped heavily into psychological thriller. Wi-Fi signals blink and drop out; landlines go dead in the night. There is, in fact, a nefarious cabin in the woods. A message etched in electric pink cursive that hangs over her husband’s cash register actually blares, with near-comical desperation, “This is the sign you’re looking for.”
To be fair, sign-making is Jed’s job: He’s a self-employed neon craftsman in New York, reviving a lost art for the retrofitted tastes of food trucks and trendy hotels. At 32, his schoolteacher bride is, she confesses, “too old to be in love like this, with such teen ferocity and force.” But Jacy is entranced by his calloused hands and soft heart, the way he turns glass tubes and colored powders into objects of beauty. And she is also, though it was not exactly planned, three months pregnant. So when Jed suggests a visit to his widowed physician father at his summer home in the far reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, she is nervous but elated, her growing belly flush with hope and progesterone.
Dr. Ash appears to be a courtly Midwest charmer, “his hair silver as a fish fin, summer-brown skin, smiling eyes that reminded me of the bachelor uncle on that old TV show, or so many old TV shows.” His manners are exquisite and his home immaculate, a masculine ode to plaid and brass and mahogany. There’s even a live-in housekeeper, a forbidding red-haired woman named Mrs. Brandt who lurks in corners, spouting cryptic things about Jed’s long-dead mother and the breeding habits of local mountain lions.
That is when the get-out gong begins to bang in earnest, a whole catalog from the dark side of Turner Classic Movies contained in its clammy, familiar feminine dread: “Gaslight,” “Rebecca,” “Rosemary’s Baby.” Dr. Ash’s old-world affect tilts and curdles, his mien shifting from twinkly “Mad Men” gentility to something cooler and more menacing. And Jed seems to regress into a charmless adolescent, disappearing for long stretches to drink with old townie friends and treating his wife increasingly like an errant receptacle for his seed. Two supporting characters implore her, separately, to leave. (It is hard to call these clues bread crumbs; they are whole loaves.) The words of her mother, a sage divorcée, come back to Jacy from her wedding day: “Honey, we all marry strangers.”
The book spends much of its time trapped in the drowsy, malevolent bardo of its heroine’s increasingly sinister confinement, every hour a slow drip of impending calamity. Abbott, a prolific author of noir and suspense (“Dare Me,” “The Turnout”), is famed for her uncanny facility with the interior lives of young women, the hot needs and secret furies of cheerleaders, ballerinas and feral unraveling teens. In a genre that can be numbingly formulaic and indifferently composed, she remains a masterful builder of mood, her voluptuous prose heavy with sex and weather.
But as Jacy dithers and stalls in the July heat, so does the story, even as it wends toward the feverish, improbable rush of its climax. Woman, beware; these are the signs you were looking for.
Leah Greenblatt is a freelance writer and former critic at large at Entertainment Weekly.
BEWARE THE WOMAN, by Megan Abbott | Putnam | 304 pp. | $28