The Opportunist by Elyse Friedman
Originally published 2022
When Alana Shropshire’s seventy-six-year-old father, Ed, starts dating Kelly, his twenty-eight-year-old nurse, a flurry of messages arrive from Alana’s brothers, urging her to help “protect Dad” from the young interloper. Alana knows that what Teddy and Martin really want to protect is their father’s fortune, and she tells them she couldn’t care less about the May–December romance. Long estranged from her privileged family, Alana, a hardworking single mom, has more important things to worry about.
But when Ed and Kelly’s wedding is announced, Teddy and Martin kick into hyperdrive and persuade Alana to fly to their father’s West Coast island retreat to perform one simple task in their plan to make the gold digger go away. Kelly, however, proves a lot more wily than expected, and Alana becomes entangled in an increasingly dangerous scheme full of secrets and surprises. Just how far will her siblings go to retain control?
Smart, entertaining and brimming with shocking twists and turns, The Opportunist is both a thrill ride of a story and a razor-sharp view of who wields power in the world.
Hello reader! It’s been a while and I can’t promise I’m about to start blogging again with any regularity but with my university’s Spring Break week ahead, I might be able to get at least one or two posts out there before the work piles up again. Before I begin I should admit that I started this post a few days after my last one so it’s been a while since I finished reading this. As I’ve noted before, that’s far from my preferred way of doing these but I figured this was better than nothing, particularly as I have another busy few weeks ahead. With that short note out of the way, let’s get on with discussing The Opportunist…
Alana has been estranged from her family for years so, when she starts getting panicked messages from her brothers that her wealthy father is engaged to his much younger nurse, she has little interest in helping to protect the family fortune. After getting frustrated with her dodging their emails, one of her brothers decides to visit her with a proposal: he wants Alana to make Kelly, their father’s fiancée, a sizeable financial offer to call off the marriage and leave town. The money used would be theirs but they would be able to deny involvement if things went badly, preserving their relationship and their source of income. For her trouble, Alana would receive a sizeable chunk of money that would enable her to provide for her daughter’s medical needs.
Upon arriving at the family’s island retreat, Alana gets to work but soon finds that her task will be harder than it might have initially seemed as Kelly is quite aware of what is going on. As frustrations mount with the brothers and the wedding nears, conversation turns to other ways to ensure that the marriage doesn’t take place. The question is whether the brothers can outmaneuver her before it is too late…
The Opportunist blends elements of family drama with the psychological crime story (the Highsmith comparison on the front is fitting). Structurally it can be classified as an inverted-style story, in that the reader learns who carries out any crimes almost immediately following their taking place. In some cases we are made aware of characters’ plans in advance of their attempts to carry them off, and this builds suspense and allows the author to play with the reader and have them question how the key conflicts here will play out and who will come out on top.
The battle of wits structure is a promising one, even if it threatens to render Alana a bystander early in the novel. Her estrangement from her family means that her investment in the outcome feels rather weak and left me a little concerned that she might observe the action more than she participated in it. Happily most of my concerns on that score were not borne out as she is significantly more active in the second half of the novel and her motivations become stronger, helping us understand her better and strengthening her stakes in the story’s outcome.
In spite of that character development, I was struck by the feeling that Alana was a surprisingly difficult character to root for, at least in that early part of the novel. For instance, we are aware that she has been consciously trying to make her way on her own without her rich father’s help, yet the cause of the disagreement only becomes clear towards the end of the novel. While some of her background, particularly her choice of work, helps soften her, she remains a tough and uncompromising individual, lacking the cast of friends and confidants who might have brought out some warmth. To give an example, Alana’s daughter is a truly important figure in her life yet she is kept distant and the reader never really gets to know her. We only see Alana’s love for her. Yet that is what is important to the character and ultimately, once we reach that end point and understand her background, it does make sense.
The pair of brothers were less interesting to me. It is quickly apparent that Alana had good reason to want to be rid of them and nothing that follows is likely to make you sympathize with them. Alana may have some common interests with them, but it is still clear that both brothers are pretty unpleasant characters and we are supposed to hope they will not find happy endings.
The father is a much more interesting study, in part because there is a striking contrast between the man we meet and Alana’s memories of him. We see that his health issues have weakened him and perhaps contributed to his reliance on his young nurse, and knowing how he is in the present may make us all the more curious about what precisely caused Alana to resent him so strongly.
Friedman does provide a really powerful explanation. Flashback sequences later in the novel do an excellent job of teasing out the nature of the conflict and also give us a much stronger understanding of who he was prior to those serious health issues. As the father comes more strongly into focus, so do the novel’s core themes. What we learn is not necessarily surprising as Friedman lays the groundwork for that, but we certainly understand the reasons Alana hates him and has kept her distance.
For those concerned that this might simply be a story about family secrets, rest assured that there are crimes and murder here although this is very much a crime, rather than a detection story. That is reinforced by the choice to show us a murder so we are quite aware of who committed it and how. It’s an interesting choice as it does undermine some of the mystery, though it does mean that we get to observe others’ reactions in the knowledge of what the truth is.
All of which brings me to the novel’s conclusion. As with some of the revelations along the way, when we get to the novel’s endgame, the revelations feel inevitable. I suspect that the writer intended to surprise but while I didn’t experience that, there is some satisfaction to that inevitability as it means that the themes feel complete and the totality of the picture comes clearly into view.
On the other hand, I look at aspects of the plot and I find myself questioning characters’ decisions. Forgive my vagueness here but it’s necessary to avoid directly spoiling the characters and the situations they put themselves in that I found incredible. There is one character in particular who undertakes some things that I found hard to reconcile with aspects of their background, though I do understand their motivation to do so. Honestly, I can’t decide how I feel about that.
Does it satisfy? Truthfully, I don’t know. One of the reasons I felt okay writing this post close to two months after finishing the book is that I am still trying to figure out if I liked that ending or not. While that may sound like a negative, I should stress though that I am still thinking about the book two months after finishing it which means that it made an impact. I appreciate and admire its boldness, even if I am uncertain if I liked it overall as a novel.
What I certainly can praise is its construction. One of the things that I find myself thinking about is how some seemingly small or irrelevant details actually hint at so much more. Some day I would like to reread this, knowing how it concludes, to truly take in and appreciate the craftsmanship and care in how this has been set up.
Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? As this book is a recent publication, there is a chance you may find it on the bookshelves at a bookstore. If not, you should be able to order a copy at your bookstore of choice with the ISBN 9780778386957.
Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can follow the link above to find a copy of the book at Bookshop.org where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.