HER by Harriet Lane


There has been a recent mini-explosion in British psychological thrillers with unreliable female narrators, perhaps fueled by the incredible success of Gone Girl. And I have succumbed to their wily charms. I am in the middle of The Girl on the Train on audio, and just finished Her by Harriet Lane. Both are hot books this month – and in fact both were reviewed together yesterday in the Washington Post.

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD. (I won’t ruin the surprise of the book, but I may share more than you want to know if you’re planning to read Her.)

I will divide my experience reading Her into two parts: the first 90 percent, and the last 10 percent.

The first 90 percent: I was hooked.

Her is about two women – Nina and Emma. They are the same age, but Nina has a 16 year-old daughter and is a successful artist, while Emma has a toddler and and a baby, and has left behind a career in television news to stay at home with her kids. Nina is cool and pulled-together, while Emma is exhausted and frazzled. They live in the same neighborhood, and when the book opens, Nina has just seen Emma for the first time in many years. We learn that Emma wronged Nina once, many years ago, and that Nina is still very angry, but we don’t know what Emma did. Emma doesn’t recognize Nina, and is therefore unsuspecting and open when Nina slowly starts to ingratiate herself into Emma’s life.

Lane sets up her story beautifully. Nina shrewdly constructs situations in which Emma will be worried and anxious, and Nina will come to the rescue. She returns Emma’s missing wallet. She finds Emma’s son, who has wandered away from the park, and takes him to the police station. She comes to the rescue as a babysitter when Emma’s other babysitter (who happens to be Nina’s daughter) cancels. Her is told from both women’s perspectives, alternating, so as Emma’s gratitude toward Nina grows alongside Nina’s parallel plotting and manipulation. Nina is always in a position of power and generosity, putting Emma into situations that make her feel self-conscious and helpless but grateful.

I LOVE Lane’s writing. Love it. The little details she peppers in that beautifully convey motherhood and women’s friendship. Her observations about modern life: “Looking through Emma’s collection, I’m struck by how little these pictures have in common with the photographs people take now, the casual why-not off-the-cuff snaps of people yawning or laughing or mucking around. Emma’s parents saved their film for shots that stood a good chance and that mattered. The times when the light was right and people were still and formal, conscious of the moment, already colluding in its artifice.” I couldn’t get enough of Her. I couldn’t wait to finish and find out what Emma had done that deserved Nina’s cruel treatment and how she would eventually uncover Nina’s true motives.

The last 10 percent: Extreme disappointment.

At the end, Lane finally reveals why Nina was so angry at Emma, and it was a major letdown. I found it totally implausible that Emma’s actions, which were basically unwitting, would have set Nina off so many years later. I wonder if Lane got to the end of her story, realized she had no idea what had propelled it, and found a hasty candidate in a thin – borderline laughable – motive.

Or maybe it was intentional. At one point toward the end, Nina is thinking about a thriller that another character is reading: “I don’t say that I’ve read it and enjoyed it, though I found the final plot twist unsatisfying, as plot twists often are: nothing like life, which – it seems to me – turns less on shocks or theatrics than on the small quiet moments, misunderstandings, or disappointments, the things that it’s easy to overlook.” Perhaps that was Lane’s point – Nina didn’t need a huge, dramatic transgression to justify her actions; a simple disappointment was enough. I’d love to know.

Overall, I was so disappointed by the ending of Her that I almost regretted reading it, but in the end, Lane’s beautiful writing justified the hours I spent on it.

3 Comments

  • February 3, 2015 - 4:22 pm | Permalink

    My book club got advance copies of this book to read and it fueled a lot of discussion – some people really hated the book, some found the writing compelling (like you). We were split on the ending, too. Even though we read it months ago, it came up in discussion again at our last meeting and someone made the point that the “wrong” done to Nina just shows how far gone she is from reality. I felt it had so much more to do with her parents, but she hasn’t been able to deal with those feelings, so Emma becomes a convenient scapegoat. Then when she meets her, it’s just so easy to take advantage that she can’t stop (in her crazy way). I really liked the final moments myself – which made for even more great book club arguing.

    Also wanted to share a biographical fact I discovered about Lane when looking for things to talk about in our book club description: she had been a journalist but had to give it up when she lost most of her vision. I thought this was incredible considering the amount of visual detail she uses in her writing! Here’s the blog post:
    http://www.wnblog.co.uk/2014/06/harriet-lane-on-her/

    • gayle
      February 3, 2015 - 4:43 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Karen, for the comment and the link. I found the link pretty interesting. As for the theories your book club discussed… that’s an interesting take on her motivation for all the evilness toward Emma. I still think Lane didn’t establish the connection well enough (Emma and her dad leaving). And Nina didn’t seem as angry at her dad in the book as she should have been (or loyal to her mom) for all that ire. But like you said, maybe it’s all just disconnection from reality and/or unresolved issues. I wanted something juicier – a stolen boyfriend, some bullying, something like that.

  • Diane@BibliophilebytheSea
    February 3, 2015 - 9:43 pm | Permalink

    I do want to try this one, as another blogger was raving about it — too bad about the last 10%

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