Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse is a novel I purchased on Amazon in December 2018 for USD 0.99. As of the date of this review, the price is US 9.49 and it has just over 300 reviews, 33% of which are five-star reviews. I think the author is good but is writing for a tough audience. Psychological thriller readers want something “never-been-done-before.” Philosophers will argue that is not possible so the author must come up with a different twist on familiar themes. I liked the story and gave it five Amazon stars. Because it had parts where the action was slow, I can see some readers knocking it down to four Amazon stars, but I was willing to give the story a chance. When it picks up the pace is good and is worth waiting (reading) for.
Hannah and Mark were still comparative newlyweds; they had only been married eight months. Currently living in England, the couple had met in New York where Hannah was pursuing her chosen lifestyle of complete independence, a lifestyle she had chosen and become completely defensive about. After the disaster of a long-term (almost five years) relationship in the past, Hannah had rationalized that her life was perfect; it did not demand that she trust anyone. This extended even to her own family. Hannah avoided speaking with her mother whenever possible. When unavoidable contact was made, Hannah made the encounter as difficult as possible. She had a good and honest relationship with her brother Tom, but he was becoming increasingly unaccepting of her aloof attitude towards everyone. Nearing the age when there would be no possibility of bearing children, she had suddenly met Mark. Completely swept off her feet by a man she could finally trust, they were married after a short engagement that surprised all who knew Hannah.
Mark was based in London and had opened a branch office in the US for his data security company. During his whirlwind courtship of Hannah, he had done everything right. Hugely financially successful, he believed that there was no reason to not live ostentatiously. His homes, his cars, and his lifestyle of always having the best impressed Hannah even though Hannah was careful to let Mark know that she was successful in her own right and that she did not need to marry Mark for his money. There were only two points of disagreement between them. Hannah felt a bit rushed when Mark announced that there would be no more US office. Hannah would have to give up her career, apartment, and independence to move to London. Mark was very persuasive, and Hannah had come to relish the move back to her native country. The second point would not be resolved. Mark had not hidden that he had a brother; he just said that they did not get along, never spoke, and that there would be no more talk of it. He even stormed out of their house for a night when asked for an explanation. It looked like Hannah would have to accept this.
As the novel opens, Hannah is going to Heathrow to pick up Mark. The meeting-at-the-airport experience had always been pleasant for the two of them whether it was JFK or Heathrow. But this time Mark did not appear. There were no phone calls, text messages, or emails to explain this. By the second day, Hannah was starting to act. A call to the airlines was met with a data protection act based refusal to answer any questions. A call to the hotel where he always stayed in New York was answered when receptionists stated he had not registered there. Finally, there was one call in which Mark explained that long meetings had resulted in missed planes, a lost phone explained non-calls, the lack of internet explained the unsent emails, and when there was an internet connection, he could not remember the address or phone number because all passwords were on the lost phone. Amazingly, Hannah initially accepted this. It was only when there was no subsequent communication with Mark that Hannah began her own further investigation. Sure, there were text messages but from an unknown number which Hannah could not answer. Each of these assured Hannah he would return to London in a few days. By the time he did, this very character driven story was finished with the slow-moving setup. The rest of the story became a page-turner.
Hannah was persistent in her use of the internet to explore the background of many people connected with Mark. They were well concealed and further raised the question to Hannah, who had she really married? An office assistant provided a small clue. This led to a famous medical researcher. Eventually, some truths were discovered about Mark’s brother. From that point the novel races along to a surprising conclusion.
Hannah’s character is complex as she tries to explore her insecurities about trust. While Mark’s complexity is all about trust also, it is for a far different reason than Hannah’s. The truth about Mark’s brother will be revealed and Whitehouse assigns the brother a very complex character which complements neither of the two main characters. I found Hannah’s character too high maintenance; I would never want to meet her. Even brother Tom finally called her on it. The two brothers were weird. Being their friend might be a criminal offense. But it makes for entertaining reading enough so that I want to read more by this author.
I am gradually (over the years) building a stereotype of novels that center on England. It seems to me that the majority start out slowly building scenes, characters, and skeletons of a plot. Then, the good ones take off and, like this novel, are good to very good. The rest just keep building. I’ll give Britain-based novels another couple of reading decades before I make up my mind.