Meet Frances Thorpe. She’s a thirtysomething singleton in London, but she’s no Bridget Jones. As the copy editor for the books section at the lefty weekly Questioner newspaper, she’s talented yet low on the food chain, overlooked by her editor for her more social and stylish co-worker. Her life is unremarkably average until one Sunday night, while driving home from a visit with her hopelessly middle-class parents, Frances comes across a crashed car and witnesses the final few moments of the woman trapped inside.
At first, Frances considers the accident just a temporarily shocking diversion. Then she realizes that the woman who died was Alys Kyte, the wife of Booker Prize-winning author Laurence Kyte, and her grief quickly gives way to ambition. Perhaps on the job she was inundated with too many self-help books with titles like Take Control of Your Destiny, but Frances parlays her invitation to Alys’s funeral, attended by the city’s literary elite, into a chance to impress her boss with her connections, and then works at ingratiating herself into the surviving family.
Debut novelist Harriet Lane, who’s worked as a journalist for the Observer, the Guardian and the Telegraph, turns up the suspense slowly, creating a breathtakingly addictive examination of just how far we’re willing to bend modern-day mores. Frances’s true end game isn’t evident till the final few pages, and even then, the question remains: is Frances a relatable heroine or a ruthless, social-climbing schemer?
An answer might lie in Alys, Always’s literariness, for while Laurence Kyte might be fictional, the book is peppered with real references winking at readers. When Daphne du Maurier’s classic 1938 novel Rebecca pops out of Frances’s bookcase, for instance, it’s evident there’s a master of manipulation at work. Still, the book’s preface, the final stanza from Christina Rossetti’s poem Shut Out, about the grim reality of life after the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, suggests a poignancy, even sympathy, for the desperation of those forever on the outside looking in.