Today’s review is for The Perfect Guests by Emma Rous (2021) published by Berkley Books in January of this year. It is categorized as a thriller/suspense novel. It’s a little under 300 pages, set in England, and utilizes a dual POV and past/present timeline alternating between chapters. This is similar to the author’s previous release, The Au Pair. I received an electronic copy of this book through a sponsored giveaway by the publisher, facilitated through NetGalley, in exchange for honest feedback.
The USA Today bestselling author of The Au Pair returns with another delicious, twisty novel–about a grand estate with many secrets, an orphan caught in a web of lies, and a young woman playing a sinister game.Goodreads Blurb
I read The Au Pair last year on a whim. I just searched in my library’s database for the keyword “England” and the book popped up. I had no prior knowledge of the book whatsoever; in fact, based on its cover and title, I thought it was a romance. However, it was a really surprising and captivating read. I decided to be on the lookout for more by Rous, and I was quickly rewarded with news of this release of The Perfect Guests. Although released in early 2021, I just now got around to reading it through due to all what has been going on lately in the world! Yet, I was left feeling a bit let down… unfortunately for me, it was not worth the excitement.
As a reviewer, I do not like leaving negative feedback. However, sometimes negative feedback is honest feedback. As I discussed above, I am a fan of the author and their previous book; I want her books to succeed. Despite my build up to what is going to be some critical points made, I will say that the book holds a 3.53 average rating on Goodreads and The Au Pair has a 3.68 average rating. I rated the former a 2 star read, and the latter a 4.
Without further delay (anxious sweating), I need to dive into some of my feedback for this book. The review will first be a summary (spoilers will be indicated before in bold, so be careful) and then a review which includes the pros and cons of this book. Scroll to the very bottom for links to where you can get it if you feel so inclined!
The past storyline is set in 1988 with Beth Soames as the main point of view character. Beth, a preteen, is orphaned after her parents and disabled brother are killed in a car accident while rushing to the hospital. Through these circumstances, she ultimately arrives in the care of the Averell family. The Averells live in a large, grand estate (Raven Hall) in the Fens, which is coastal area of east England (picture marshes and something like this….), and seem pretty welcoming when all things are considered. Beth meets their daughter, who is around her age, named Nina. The story follows these two girls as their friendship develops. One of the constant themes throughout this development is Beth’s sense of identity being tied to 1) keeping the family happy so they don’t chuck her out, 2) listening to what Nina wants to do because of #1, and 3) not having much opportunity to leave the estate due to its isolation from the local village and Nina’s parents’ rigid insistence that they stay on the estate. They find some solace in exploring the grounds, including often swimming in the lake (see cover photo) and hanging out with one local boy.
The modern timeline is set in 2019, with the main point of view being Sadie, a wanna-be actress struggling to make ends meet. We are introduced to her as she is clearing out her mother’s belongings and receives a call from her agent about participating in a murder mystery event as a hired guest. When she hears about the pay and the opportunity, Sadie is invigorated and readily agrees. When she turns up to the (seemingly) elaborately organized event at Raven Hall, she has mixed feelings about the guests, the estate, and the host. There seems to be a lot of fire damage to the building, and some of the areas of the home are just plain creepy. According to locals and information she gleans, the family who had lived in the Hall for ages had been turned out since a tragedy occurred some decades before… but now, guests are arriving who seem to have mixed emotions, various ties to the place, or just seem a bit off. When all is said and done, Sadie is wondering if this isn’t just an acting gig… and she may be correct.
Summary P2 (Spoilers)
This book utilizes dual timelines (past and present day) and two different main character points of view. The past is focusing on the Averell family (owners of Raven Hall) and Beth, and the present focuses on Sadie and the guests at the all-but-abandoned Raven Hall. The reader knows that a tragedy happened at Raven Hall due to Sadie’s timeline revealing this info, but it is not clear until about halfway to little bit over halfway through what exactly happens. This is the build-up: the reader knows a tragedy is going to happen in the past timeline (due to foreshadowing given in the present day), and thus knows that the present day timeline (murder mystery game) is shady and very likely related to this event.
Spoilers below this line in this section due to the nature of the discussion on themes utilized by the author. This would spoil some of the plot revelations if you are looking to read this book. Scroll past this until the next section to avoid.
There are several themes throughout the character development in this book which relate to the overall plotline. One of the major themes is Beth’s sense of obligation to the family. As the family takes Beth in with seemingly no legal or moral obligation to do so, Beth seems to feel bound to pleasing the family, following their rules, and not making much fuss. Leonora is Nina’s mom, and she has some rigid rules about her daughter’s life, including all but limiting her to isolation at the estate. She does not often leave the area, and she only has one other real friend, a local boy named Jonas. As you can probably already guess, there is romantic tension in this whole situation. Having developed a teenage relationship with Jonas, Beth starts to detach herself from the obligations of keeping to the estate or following along with what Nina wants to do… however, something even more impactful occurs which alters her forced loyalty the family.
Throughout the story, a “grandfather” figure often travels to the estate from his base in the USA. Every time, the family just straight up freaks out, especially Leonora. Her husband, Marcus, travels the world for business, so sometimes he’s not there… but he’s often there when the grandfather figure turns up. The relationship between the grandfather and Nina’s parents is very tense, as he is characterized as harsh, unreasonable, and terse. Unfortunately, on his first visit, Nina is too sick to come down to see him (for the first time ever), so Leonora asks Beth to pretend to be her. He wouldn’t know because he’s never met or seen a picture of her, so why not? She dresses up a bit differently, does her hair up, and plays the violin for him. He is moved and wants her to come back with him to America, which she declines. This is recurring plot point, but it just becomes odd that Nina is always suddenly too sick to see her grandfather when he does turn up…. and that Beth has to pretend to be her every time…
In the present day, Sadie takes on the acting job of pretending to be a guest for this murder mystery game at a fancy estate (Raven Hall, former home of the Averells and Beth in the past timeline). The whole thing seems really organized and legitimate, from the promised pay to the formalities of 1) her invitation, 2) going through her agent, 3) sending her clothes and instructions, 4) picking her up and transporting to the location. It all just seems like a budding enterprise hoping to act out a game in a perfect setting: an old, abandoned estate with a blemished past. However, Sadie starts to pick up on some of the body language of the guests and the pitfalls of the host and game. Something just seems off; the building seems spooky, one guest in particular seems very agitated and out of place. There’s no cell phone service, and the cars are gone… a few people just got a bit sick off one of the dishes… someone has disappeared? It all seems to be going to pieces when…
You guessed it, there’s an ulterior motive for having this get together. But why Sadie? And who is everyone else? And why?
Major spoilers!! Please don’t read past this line if you have any intention of reading this book. Skip to next section (see headings).
The reader knows that there is a tragedy coming. The present-day Sadie timeline knows that something happened at Raven Hall, but we don’t know what. We do know that the past timeline is probably building up to that revelation. Importantly, there are several things going on that hint at what it could be. First, there is the hunch that Leonora is poisoning Nina, but we don’t know why. Beth figures out that it’s something in her drink and it’s linked to grandpa’s visits. Could it be one poisoning too far? Or could it be that the secret will be let out and something happens to Beth? Or could it have something to do with the lake… it’s on the cover, they go out there a lot, and there’s something going on with Nina and Beth’s relationship as they start to clash over boys, wanting to go out, disagreements, and her parents. Why is there fire damage to the estate? It’s damaged near Nina and Beth’s old bedrooms; did they get trapped in a fire? If so, why and how?
There’s also something going on with the whole grandpa storyline. Why does he keep coming back? Why does he want to get rid of the estate and why does he want Beth/Nina to come back with him so badly? Also, what’s the whole deal with Leonora being so attached to the house? Who is running the mystery game and why… is it revenge?
Well, we figure out that Marcus (Nina’s dad) has died around the time of the tragedy. Did it have something to do with the fire? Did Leonora or the grandpa go crazy and try to get rid of the estate? Or was it something to do with…
yep, yet another timeline. Sometimes we get to read this other POV but we don’t know (or at least I didn’t) who it is until the end of the read. Someone is sneaking around trying to get back into the estate but someone else lives there now. Is it Leonora after being turned out? Is it Beth due to being kicked out? Or maybe Nina coming back to reclaim after her parents couldn’t keep it for some reason?
Who bloody knows…. because….
This book has way too much going on and none of it made any sense by the end. It’s convoluted, trite, and forced. Too many twists, no substance to most of them, and little character development enough to understand why any of this is happening. This is especially the case with Sadie’s timeline. So many new characters are introduced (although several are not technically new, as they are featured in the past timelines) and the reader is aware that they have some ties back to the past, but it’s not clear how or why. The ultimate point to all of this was that the family, specifically Leonora, was obsessed with Raven Hall and for some reason they are turned out. It becomes a point of the book that the murder mystery game has something to do with that, but we don’t figure out why until the last few sections.
As I said earlier, I liked The Au Pair. The weakness of that release (and many other reviews agree with this) was the ending. The build up was interesting and entertaining, but the final bang was unbelievably forced and left me thinking, “Really? After all that… this is the big revelation?” It’s like the conclusion of an undergraduate paper written before the deadline… it’s like you just want to get it over with, so you slap it together and say bye. That’s a real shame because I think Rous is talented and a budding author in this genre. I think that she has a knack for the dual pov/timeline writing style, but her weakness is in 1) the endings, 2) too many loose plotlines.
This book would’ve benefited substantially from being clearer in its character development, concise in its choice of twists and turns, and choosy with its elements of suspense. You have an orphan, poison, fire, spooky house, murderer, dead husband, mean grandpa, murder mystery game, someone may have disappeared, house marred in tragedy, someone is snooping in the yard, was someone upstairs or left that door open?, did someone poison the dessert, why did she look at me funny?, I’m going to snoop in people’s rooms, ew this room is creepy, oops someone tried to catch me on fire…
But why though?
That’s the main critique that I have. Why? Why? Why? Drive it home. Why did these characters care so much about this place, why stage a game to exact revenge?
To hide false paternity? Really. That’s all? Because someone fell in the lake and died… but didn’t really? Only one person did, and it wasn’t who you thought because you ran away and hid your whole life and identity and now they found out and want to kill your daughter that they’ve been stalking so they came up with this huge elaborate plan to do so?
I guess. It just ends abruptly with a Scooby-Doo style, “and I would’ve gotten away with it too!” ending and I just didn’t like it.
Which stinks because I was looking forward to this release. I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you think I’m wrong and it sounds really good. In which case, I say go for it! I want Rous’s books to succeed and I will give her next book a go, whenever it comes. I just think that I see some patterns for improvement in The Au Pair and in The Perfect Guests. As with all writers, practice makes perfect and with each book, I hope the best for her stories!
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