Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life.
The request seems odd, even intrusive—and for the two women who answer, the consequences are devastating.
Reeling from a traumatic break-in, Emma wants a new place to live. But none of the apartments she sees are affordable or feel safe. Until One Folgate Street. The house is an architectural masterpiece: a minimalist design of pale stone, plate glass, and soaring ceilings. But there are rules. The enigmatic architect who designed the house retains full control: no books, no throw pillows, no photos or clutter or personal effects of any kind. The space is intended to transform its occupant—and it does.
After a personal tragedy, Jane needs a fresh start. When she finds One Folgate Street she is instantly drawn to the space—and to its aloof but seductive creator. Moving in, Jane soon learns about the untimely death of the home’s previous tenant, a woman similar to Jane in age and appearance. As Jane tries to untangle truth from lies, she unwittingly follows the same patterns, makes the same choices, crosses paths with the same people, and experiences the same terror, as the girl before.
I had a difficult time rating The Girl Before. On the one hand, I found it to be very unputdownable, but on the other hand, I did have some issues with it. So let’s just get down to it.
Fun personal fact about me: I was an architecture major in college. From the very beginning of this book, the architect in me was in love. The first time we step into the house at One Folgate Street, I felt like I was literally stepping inside as well (a feeling I compare to Harry falling into Dumbledore’s pensieve). Just like that, within a few short chapters, I was hooked.
We follow our two main characters, Emma and Jane, as they find the house, learn about all the rules the owner sets for its inhabitants, decide they like it enough to abide by these rules, and move in. Told from Emma’s perspective one chapter and Jane’s the next, we see a lot of parallels between their stories. Their voices are really similar as well, making it sometimes difficult to recall mid-chapter who is speaking. (Side note – if you are having the same issue, note that in Emma’s chapters, there are no quotation marks around dialogue.)
I don’t want to give away the plot, but I do want to mention that it felt like the book I started reading and the one I finished reading were two completely different books. It began as a drama, turned to a mystery in the middle and ended as a psychological thriller. Which can be polarizing, especially if you go in with expectations of reading the next big psychological thriller with “girl” in the title.
And yet, I read this compulsively. I did not want to put it down. The super short chapters helped with this – it’s just so easy to say, “Just one more chapter!” and then read four more when they are this short. The characters were all complex; I’m no expert but by what I do know of psychology and how humans operate, this feels like a realistic portrayal of human complexity and why we do certain things we do. It explores themes of narcissism, the need we all have to feel special, the way we have a type and repeat our own mistakes, and passion versus control.
Other themes include: minimalism, which is timely given the whole Marie Kondo, capsule wardrobe, living life with less movement; and technology, which is always relevant. The Girl Before brings up some good questions about these. Such as, is all this minimalism worth the ruthlessness that it requires? Are we too reliant on our technology and trackers? Do the positive aspects really outweigh the negatives?
I definitely got the impression this book was written with a movie in mind, and this is one of those cases where I could imagine the movie would be better. There were almost too many twists and turns throughout the pages, enough to give you whiplash. A movie version (currently slated for 2018) would water it down to the essential (pun intended!) and hopefully focus on some of the story’s strengths, rather than try to pull your attention every which way.
Ultimately, despite my issues, I did enjoy reading The Girl Before, and do recommend it. Beware before starting, trigger warnings for abuse and a lot of sexual content.