The Perfect Friend by Barbara Copperthwaite is not only “a gripping psychological thriller,” as indicated in the subtitle, it is a collection of several gripping psychological characterizations cleverly woven together in a novel fans of “mind mysteries” will love. Characters are not who they seem to be; sometimes they are swimming aimlessly in the possibilities of their own identity. There is addiction, spousal abuse, multiple identities, mysterious messages, anorexia, and a mental health care system (British) which I found quite different from the US, therefore interesting. The characters are complex, deep, and deceptive. There are multiple big surprises throughout the novel and a blockbuster surprise at the end. It is impossible for me to do any content summary without spoiler alerts but I want to comment on some characters.
Readers first meet Alex in a support group with others who have varied problems. Alex confesses to the group that she is a survivor of anorexia. Anorexia, which may or may not include bulimia, is the physical manifestation of Alex’s illness, the psychological elements are the elements of her life that led her to her physical condition. Throughout this novel, Alex has or will be involuntarily committed three times. She has many, many issues which she will try to work through with Rosie, a counselor and/or psychologist, and Carrie, a best friend to Alex but also, due to age differences, a surrogate daughter. A large part of the issues Alex must face stem from a present-day family relationship (husband and children) as well as her childhood upbringing, one she considered cold and unfeeling.
As the novel begins, Carrie occupies the second major protagonist role. A member of the same support group and a cancer survivor, Carrie has slid into a friendship that seems close and mutually beneficial. Carrie needs a friend and Alex wants to expunge guilt for having slept with Carrie’s boyfriend. Alex’s affair is not known by any member of the support group. As the novel begins, Carrie reveals that her cancer, previously in remission, has returned and doctors have informed her it is terminal. Chemotherapy will resume. Other than the obvious depression accompanying such a diagnosis, Carrie has very twisted childhood experiences to overcome.
A character easy to overlook is Rosie, Alex’s counselor/psychologist. From a psychological viewpoint, people who do this work are truly amazing as they must empathize or at least sympathize with a wide range of problems presented to them. They must gain the trust and confidence of their patients and then construct strategies that the patient can discover to deal with problems. At some point, the counselor must “flip” and take charge of the treatments if the patient is not “getting it” as far as recognizing they have a problem. Rosie will be passive and non-prescriptive for much of this story but then will come to a point where aggressive confrontation is needed. When Rosie reverses the dominance roles, the reader will find the first big surprise of the story.
Carrie is new in the town; she has settled here to escape her past. But her past is catching up with her in a series of covertly delivered messages and packages threatening her with exposure of her past. Alex sees the first few messages and packages and conceals them from Carrie, not wanting to worry her. The received threats are not explicit and Alex cannot determine what is going on; it might be the threats are against Alex. We have an external, non-psychological mystery.
There are lots of psychological insights about dealing with addictive behavior as it relates to bulimia and anorexia. There are even more about dealing with pathological liars. Expressed in the simplest terms, “How do you know when a skilled, long-term liar is telling the truth”?
In the US, authorities have a system for involuntary commitment to mental health facilities but I found the ones described in this story almost draconian. From this story, I get the idea that it is very easy to get committed to a facility, difficult to get out, and easy to be recommitted without a hearing. Hopefully, this is an erroneous impression.
This is not a fast read until after the first big secret reveal. After that, it is almost impossible to stop reading. While there is a final big surprise near the end, keep reading. There are still more surprises. The presentation of chapters might challenge a reader. When the story moves back and forth in time, a reader only must pay attention to chapter headings. There are several dialogue segments in which shifts of the speaker are not clearly marked. I do not criticize this style; I think it makes the novel more interesting. I gave this five Amazon stars, recommend it highly, and will read more from this author.