Originally published in 2021
Summer’s looking forward to a break when she, her husband, Gabe, and Gabe’s nine-year-old son arrive at the annual family get-together at her in-laws’ sprawling Pennsylvania estate. On the agenda are leisurely gourmet meals, tennis matches, and plenty of relaxation by the pool.
But this year, Gabe’s brother Nick has invited his new flame, Hannah, whom Summer immediately recognizes from an acting gig they both did a few years before. Oddly, Hannah claims not to know her, putting Summer on high alert. Yet Hannah charms the other family members, and Nick soon announces they’re engaged.
Then the reunion is rocked by tragedy when a family member is found dead, supposedly from natural causes. A grieving Summer fears that the too-good-to-be-true Hannah is involved, though, and as she investigates just what Nick’s fiancée might have done to keep her perfect image intact, she fears that the first death might be only the beginning…
It is always interesting to see how a book is described by other writers. The US hardcover edition of The Fiancée has a quote on its front cover from Megan Miranda that makes me wonder if we read the same book. That description of the book as ‘tense, fast-paced… a captivating thriller’ doesn’t really describe the qualities of the book at all for me and places the emphasis on the least successful aspects of the novel rather than its strength – some pretty strong character work.
The novel is told from the perspective of Summer, an actress whose career has never quite managed to take off, mostly consisting of voiceover work and small theater parts. A few years before she married Gabe, a divorcee with a charming young son (incidentally the most likeable character in the book). She has been accepted into his large family and looks forward to the yearly trips to his parents’ palatial home and time bonding with her in-laws, their sons and their wives.
This year however Summer gets a bit of a surprise when she learns that the youngest, Nick, has brought his girlfriend with him. That’s partly because Nick’s relationships never seem to get serious enough to warrant family introductions but the bigger surprise comes when she realizes that she knows his new flame, another actress by the name of Hannah. When she tries to point out the connection however she is surprised when Hannah claims to have never met her in spite of Summer’s certainty that they worked together on an acting gig several years before.
When Nick and Hannah announce their engagement at dinner that first night, Summer is a little concerned as she is convinced that she is lying, though no one seems to take her suggestions seriously. When a family member suddenly dies in suspicious circumstances the following day, Summer begins to suspect that Hannah may have been involved and becomes determined to investigate to expose her and protect her family.
I flagged up at the start of this post that I think one of the strengths of this novel is its attention to character. Kate White creates a number of complex, nuanced characters to populate this book with the chief of these being its protagonist, Summer. She is not always a likeable figure, at times coming off as quite obsessive and I think readers would be justified in questioning the extent to which her suspicions about Hannah are rooted in professional and personal jealousies rather than any kind of evidence. Still, while I didn’t always care for Summer, I found her quite credible and appreciated some of the depth and ambiguity the author provides about her character.
Perhaps the most likeable part of Summer is the way she has embraced and cared for her young stepson who, it is clear, she is very fond of. The depiction of that stepparent, stepchild relationship as respectful and caring is handled very well and it helps balance out some of those moments where she seems to be obsessively pointing to Hannah, often ignoring the evidence she has collected.
I also really enjoyed discovering the complex and subtly different relationships members of the family had with one another. While Summer is fairly close to everyone in the family and feels welcomed and accepted, some of her sisters-in-law perceive and experience quite different relationships with other members of the family. Likewise, the brothers each seem to fall into slightly different roles, interacting with the others in slightly different ways. It all felt very credible and carefully thought out.
While I did not experience much tension in these early chapters – it feels like White leaves us a long time before we get a clear sense of a crime to be investigated – I found those relationships and character moments quite compelling. It certainly helped me feel invested in what was to come.
My issues with the book lie in the development of its mystery. While I enjoyed the careful build-up leading to the discovery of the body, I found the case a little bland and the process of detection lacked much interest for me. The focus, rather than gathering concrete pieces of evidence, is more on the complications caused by Summer being so quick to point to Hannah and the way others respond to those suggestions. I found this interesting on that character-level but those hoping for something clever or ingenious in terms of how the murder was worked may well find the book a little disappointing on that point.
Things do pick up quite a lot however in terms of the plotting when a second murder is discovered, giving us (and Summer) a little more to go on. This prompts some very solid, if simple, pieces of deduction as well as one of the book’s few grisly moments which is to be welcomed. Even then however the pace never feels all that brisk and there isn’t much sense of any personal threat here for Summer until right before the end of the novel.
The Verdict: The family drama interests more than its mystery or ‘thriller’ elements. Still, this is quite readable and I’ll happily return to Kate White again. If anyone has any suggestions, please feel free to share!
Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? Your local bookstore should be able to order a copy if they do not have it in stock. The ISBN number for the paperback is 9780062945419, the hardcover is 9780063092723.
Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can follow the links 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.