A man spends a romantic evening with a beautiful woman, and thinks: “I’ll grab my binoculars and go into protective mode.” She thinks he’s Cape Fear and gets a restraining order.
Or does she?!
We start with Caroline Stark, from her perspective, hosting a networking party at her newly-built Hamptons beach house. She and her husband, Jason, have stretched to finance their – her – dream home, which doubles as a showcase for her design skills.
It would only take a strong gust of wind for their lives to come crashing down, and there’s a massive hurricane coming. When she encounters bad boy bartender Aidan on the beach, Caroline doesn’t know if he’s admiring, or casing her joint. They have a brief, reckless fling, which turns to obsession in a stormy he said/she said thriller.
Readers might be more easily swayed by her. On top of money worries, her daughter Hannah has recently flown the nest for college, and she was publicly humiliated when Jason’s female “business associate” crashed their party. When the narrative switches to Aidan’s perspective, it’s clear he’s completely fixated.
But is he the villain here though? There’s a chasm between city folks like the Starks, with their vacation homes, and the blue-collar townies who serve them. Aidan harbours a particular resentment, seeing the glittering Stark mansion sitting on land that once belonged to his grandfather.
He’s a pariah among his fellow locals, who shun him due to a tragedy in his youth. Even his police chief older brother fears he’s a lost cause. But after all the terrible secrets she’s told him about her husband, he sees Caroline as his chance to be the hero he knows he can be.
It’s far from clear if she’s really the damsel who needs saving. When her husband goes missing, allegations of drugs, gangs, and murder begin to swirl. One character hits rock bottom, while the other is in the breeze.
Michele Campbell has written an atmospheric novel about the struggle between two unreliable narrators, and what they bring out in each other. There’s greater payoff in understanding them, and picking up the little hints to their true natures, than there is in guessing the plot twists.
So that we do actually know whom to believe, the story is forced to take a diversion into police procedural as it races to the end.
As a former New York City prosecutor, Campbell’s writing has an authentic texture. There’s no cringe-y genre dialogue or artificial minor characters. There are slight John Grisham undercurrents, while it will appeal to fans of writers like Gillian Flynn and Liane Moriarty.
Campbell also writes incredible weather, which adds to the excitement and dark glamour. It makes you want to immerse yourself in her back catalogue, or go and prowl beach houses.
2 thoughts on “A Stranger on the Beach by Michele Campbell review – a stormy suspense”
This sounds so good!
I tore through it, which is unusual for me. But I know others didn’t like the unreliable narrators, who kept giving two different perspectives on the same events.