Author: Natalie Barelli
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
The vilest fictional antagonists, I’ve discovered, aren’t the flashy ones with a laugh that makes your bones shiver. The vilest fictional villains are people like Emma Fern, who try to convince you of their helplessness and niceness, while being anything but.
Until I Met Her by Natalie Barelli begins with a funeral. Famous crime writer Beatrice Johnson Greene is dead and Emma Fern, the young writer she took under her wing, is inconsolable.
Oddly, as Emma herself admits, it was she who killed Beatrice.
Emma owned a niche home décor store into which Beatrice had walked in. A diehard fan of Beatrice, Emma is soon elevated to the ranks of Beatrice’s friend and protégé, thanks to a favour she did her. Beatrice offers to mentor Emma on the writing and completion of her novel.
The attention does wonders to Emma’s confidence, inspiring her to write her own book. Until then, Emma has been under the shadow of her economist-husband, Jim, who is working on a revolutionary economic model.
One day, Beatrice asks Emma to publish a novel she has written in her name. Her reasoning is that being a bestselling author of crime thrillers typecasts her; her literary novel should not be snuffed out by the critics. A little like JK Rowling did as Robert Galbraith.
However, Beatrice wants a real person to publish the book and handle the publicity, in return for which she is willing to split the royalties by half. The two women write and sign their contracts on two cocktail napkins, one for each of them. Emma publishes the book, Long Grass Running, in her own name.
Very soon, she is lauded as a literary voice and her books begin to sell, and both Emma and Beatrice are pleased at the success of their scheme and the royalties pouring in. When Emma is shortlisted for the prestigious Poulton Prize, Beatrice believes that it is time to own up to the scheme they initiated. But Emma is not ready to give up the life she sees as her own now.
The only thing that could out her is the cocktail napkin.
Emma kills Beatrice and retrieves the napkin and so begins a web of lies and deceit that she spins to keep anyone from getting close to her secret.
Since we know at the start that Emma has killed Beatrice, it is no surprise. What we get to see is how quickly Emma’s life comes dangerously close to unraveling.
The book is written in the first person present tense point of view of Emma. Only the flashbacks, from the time Beatrice walks into Emma’s store to the time of her death, are in past tense.
Emma isn’t very likeable, even at first, and as she begins to copy Beatrice’s look and mannerisms, she becomes horribly distasteful. With her subsequent actions, as she seeks to cover up her tracks, she falls even lower in our estimation.
As a character, she has her own complexities. Aching for her husband’s approval and respect, she struggles with her suspicion of her husband’s on-off affair with his ex-student Allison.
Emma says, My entire existence was a balancing act between being desirable enough that he would love me, but not so needy or dependent that I’d drive him away. This balancing act is emblematic of all her relationships.
The publication of Long Grass Running gives her the validation she craves. Holding the book in her hands, she thinks, What is real has a weight, what is imaginary does not… The earth only pulls to her what has substance.
This book isn’t a whodunit. And we get to know pretty early why Emma acted as she did. What we see unfolding in this book is how Emma degenerates further, wiping off the opposition, hiding her tracks. Willing to stop at nothing to protect her insecurities in the personal and professional sphere.
Since almost no one knows about her crime, it is up to us, as readers, to feel the shock and horror of her actions.
I rooted for Emma to get caught, to be find out. I can’t remember the last time I’ve disliked a character so, and this is her first person PoV, mind you.
So Book 1 ended with her at the pinnacle of her success. I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to Book 2.
(I read a Kindle edition of this book through NetGalley.)