Bo Luxton has it all - a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name. Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend. When they meet at a writers' retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops ... Or does it?
Breathlessly pacey, taut and terrifying, Exquisite is a startlingly original and unbalancing psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last page.
As soon as I saw it, I was immediately attracted to this book's beautiful, sensual cover. So simple and yet so intriguing. But surely not as intriguing as the story within. Stovell's debut is a dark, claustrophobic tale of obsession that kept me hooked from start to finish.
Obsession is defined as "a state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently especially in a way that is not normal."
And that in my book is a recipe for disaster...
Unemployed, unskilled and impoverished, Alice Dark dreams of becoming a brilliant, famous author one day. But in order to make her dream come true, she first needs to put some order into her life, starting by ditching her waste-of-space boyfriend and enrolling on a week-long course for aspiring writers.
At the course she meets the beautiful Bo Luxton, a rich, bestselling author. The lives and backgrounds of these two women couldn't be more different, but despite this there immediately seems to be some sort of chemistry between them. Bo's life is the one Alice craves and Bo sees a promising talent in the young woman, and feels the need to help her fulfil her dreams. So the two agree to keep in touch after the course.
But the emails sent between them gradually change. From mentoring and knowledge-sharing ones, they become personal, passionate, intense and frenzied. Slowly, the two women start to invade each other's mind and when they decide to take the first step into the unknown, I knew that nothing good would come out of it...
This book made me reflect on two main points:
1. What lack of love can do to a person or rather what it makes a person do.
2. How one's life can unravel when letting in the wrong person.
The author grabs the reader's attention from the outset with a chapter written from the pov of someone who's in prison. It must be one of the women, but which one? Why did she end up in prison? What will happen by the end? I couldn't wait to find out!
The author's prose is beautiful and crisp and through her vivid, colourful descriptions I could clearly imagine the main settings of the book, mostly Brighton and Bo's house halfway up a mountain in the picturesque Lake District.
Bo and Alice are very different characters, yet equally intriguing and intense. I can't say they're likeable, as there were times when they irritated me. I felt trapped like a magnet placed between two metal blocks, strongly attracted to both sides but unable to decide and move in either direction. I found myself sucked in the emotional vortex these women create between them, not sure what or who to believe, not sure who (if anyone) was in reality genuine and who was just a schemer. I experienced their excruciating passion, anguish, hurt, but also their rage and hatred. Both women are damaged individuals who've survived some pretty nasty experiences, both are women that crave what they don't have and both are determined to do anything to obtain it.
The story is recounted in alternate chapters from the povs of Bo and Alice. The same events are conveyed to us from two different perspectives that not always match. Any one of them could be lying, fabricating or misinterpreting everything, either unwillingly or intentionally confusing things and puzzling the reader. By the end, I wasn't sure if it was just me who was misinterpreting everything. These are women who mess up with your brain. Who's on the right side? Bo? Alice? Or neither one of them?
As an ending, I was expecting something slightly more shocking, that leaves an impact on the reader, though I still think the author managed to leave me baffled and wondering whether I've misread the whole plot. Did I get the wrong end of the stick?
For a debut novel, I think Exquisite is a brilliant, engrossing read and would highly recommend it.
Massive thanks to Orenda Books and the lovely Anne Cater for an ARC of this fab book and for inviting me to take part in the blogtour.
Sarah Stovell was born in 1977 and spent most of her life in the Home Counties before a season working in a remote North Yorkshire youth hostel made her realise she was a northerner at heart. She now lives in Northumberland with her partner and two children and is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Lincoln University. Her debut psychological thriller, Exquisite, is set in the Lake District.