Parenting is the hardest job you’ll ever do. Parenting someone else’s children? Well… it goes without saying – that is even harder. In Claire Seeber’s novel “The stepmother” we find out what happens when two people with plenty of their own baggage, marry, and merge their families into one.
The story is told via the voice of two sisters, Jeanie and Marlena. Sisters that had an atrocious upbringing themselves, so, as a result, are highly damaged individuals. To add insult to injury, they have both endured scandals that almost ended their respective careers. The main voice of the novel is that of Jeanie, a forty-two year old with a teenage son, Frankie. We meet Jeanie when she is newly married to Matthew. She feels that the great love she has for Matthew will overcome her rather sordid past. This is a new beginning, which she aims to make a success. Used to living in a small flat in Brighton, and knowing only struggle for most of her life, Jeanie is more than a little overwhelmed by the big Hertfordshire house and Matthew’s twin fourteen year-old twins, Scarlett and Luke.
And what’s up with the locked room on the first floor?
Why are there so many animal graves in the spacious backyard?
She and Matthew married after only knowing each other for a few months. She has secrets that she fears might have a negative impact on her marriage. Should she tell Matthew and perhaps jeopardize her new life? But what if someone else tells him before she has a chance to?
“Stepfamilies are hard work”.
Jeanie is feeling the anguish of walking the tightrope of step-parenthood. Trying to ingratiate yourself so as to be accepted and cared for, while also trying to be fair and be a good parental example.
Jeanie soon realizes that she had been looking through rose-colored glasses. While Luke seems accepting of her, Scarlett seems to have an intense dislike of her new stepmother and her hostility is overt. The isolated ‘Malum House’ is permeated with a deep sense of unease. There are unexplained occurrences, noises, dead animals, and more. Jeanie incessantly questions herself as to why these things are occurring. Then she wonders… maybe it is all in her mind? She feels unwelcome in Berkhamsted, and wonders what she has let herself and Frankie in for. Matthew’s previous marriage has only recently ended. His ex-wife is glamorous with a scathing and condescending personality. Jeanie doesn’t need yet another reason to feel inadequate. Also, to Jeanie’s immense disappointment, her son and her new husband are openly antagonistic…
“Our vices make life’s crap bearable. I can’t really argue with that”.
Then her secret is divulged by anonymous email. Matthew turns cold and judgmental. Jeanie feels under threat, alone, and increasingly powerless. Feeling less and less in control of her life Jeanie seeks help and support from her sister Marlena. Only Marlena is busy with her life as an investigative journalist and is not there to support her sister when she needs her most.
About half way through the novel you’ll think you have it all figured out – but you’d be wrong. You begin to ask yourself if Jeanie is as genuine as she appears. Just who is manipulating who? Another fine example of the ‘unreliable narrator’.
This is a story of lies, betrayal, ruined lives, and a woman longing for love and acceptance. It explores the notion that we all are inherently selfish. We have our own agenda, and view the world as it pertains to our desires, our notion of what ‘should be‘. How we see what we want to see, rather than opening our eyes to what actually ‘is‘. In addition to being a superb thriller, with the requisite plot twists, this is a story of highly damaged people. It begs the question: Can damaged people be effective parents?
Written with empathy and understanding, this character-driven thriller will be relished by anyone who is a fan of the genre. The pacing is spot-on, and the tension gradually tightens around the reader into a vise-like grip. All in all an atmospheric thriller that I highly enjoyed. I will make sure I keep an eye out for future novels by Claire Seeber.
Claire Seeber is a Londoner who started professional life as a (bad) actress and became a documentary maker, a journalist and a writer of, so far, psychological thrillers.
The Observer said of her first novel: ‘a disturbing debut’ whilst The Guardian called it ‘powerful’…she keeps writing whilst also studying psychology and (trying to) to manage a home of slightly feral kids and animals. Luckily she’s got a very nice partner to help too. (via Amazon.co.uk)