Family Feuds

Author: Kaira Rouda

CEO Richard Kingsley has everything – wealth, power, women, billion-dollar mega-yachts, and dominion over everyone he meets, especially his family. But it’s nearly time for him to retire, to pass his empire onward. His greedy children are milling around, waiting for the chance to cash out on years of kowtowing. But Kingsley has something else in mind – one last feral game disguised as a family reunion on the open seas aboard his decadent new yacht. As the waves begin to rock the ship, life becomes unmoored for each of the children. Expectations are raised and shattered, hopes courted and destroyed, secrets revealed. But Kingsley is playing a dangerous game, and it might not go as planned. His children have had years to plan as well, and power games have a price.

The write-up and ominous cover art for Beneath the Surface appealed to me instantly. I adore suspense/thrillers, especially those with an element of isolation set against exotic, moody locals. And what is moodier, and ultimately more mysterious, than the ocean, which oscillates between beauty and rage. There is promise in the story. While everyone in the Kingsley family has wealth and success to one degree or another, they have been raised to want more and do anything to get it. Kingsley is a terrible, absentee father, and he has crafted a brood of vipers, only interested in his money and in inheriting the power of his empire. The in-fighting and hatred, the snide comments and innuendos, the fake politeness, set against a tremulous ocean over a tense weekend should be a thriller lover’s decadent treat. But despite the promise, the story falls desperately short.

The characters showcase zero complexity. Kinsley himself constantly breaks mood, talking to us, the unknown audience, chortlingly evilly over his very evilness in a middle school sort of way: I’m rich, and I can play with people like toys. Ha! I’m not kidding here, either; Kinglsey says Ha! many times, as he talks to himself about his schemes. It’s a caricature of someone who should be terrifying but is ultimately portrayed as malevolent in a childish way. Kingsley is self-interested, bolstered by poorly constructed schemes and the serendipity of convenient circumstances. He’s not especially clever. Kingsley and his plots are nothing but a self-conscious joke, a parody that verges on comedy.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Similarly, all the children and their spouses fall prey to the same lazy characterization. The point of view shifts, each child (and there are three of them), two of the children’s spouses, and the new trophy wife tell portions of the story. Yet they all sound the same: late, late show villains, thoroughly enjoying their terribleness. Upfront about it. Laughable. Poorly and basically written. The young, trophy wife with a bad past is out to steal the money. The charming playboy son cheats everyone. The boring elder son will literarily do anything for dear old dad. The two judgmental wives, each wanting power in their own way, are smarter than their dumb husbands, yet they cannot see being Kingsley’s games. And finally, there’s the wild-child daughter, who shows up at the last minute with her bad boyfriend and rock-and-roll ways. We’ve seen it all before. And we’ve seen it done better.

And yet . . . what little characterization that is established is pointlessly mutable. Kingsly somehow does right by one of his son’s spouses and his grandchildren, having a change of heart that directly contradicts with his hobby-like manipulation and malice – something he keeps up even while showing some humanity. When a health problem arises for Kingsley, all the children and spouses feel sorry for the old man, despite his strategic emotional torture and lack of true involvement (or at least positive presence) in any of their lives. This is their chance to finally take the greedy old man to the cleaners.  Their sudden empathy doesn’t fit or make sense. The choppy, simplistic writing doesn’t help.

Image by Ilo from Pixabay

The story itself, including all the machinations, secrets, traps, and exposes are all equally laughable and generically overdone and underexplained at the same time. It’s a parody of all the gotcha moments, from revelations of infidelity, gambling, betrayal, and murder. While there is nothing new under the sun, the telling could have made all these things believable, filled them with life and impact. We came to the story for outrageous scandal, after all, and were ready and willing to believe anything if it was juicy enough. Instead, each new revelation, each hazardous moment, fell flat, like someone reciting an outline of a movie without believing it or caring to make it come alive. The book itself suffers from its own self-awareness, from its lack of atmosphere and quality, from its lazy introduction and dismissal of various plot threads.

All in all, Beneath the Surface was a mess. There certainly was potential here, and the book reads quickly, but the write-up and the actual story are two entirely different things. This was my first experience with author Kaira Rouda, and I won’t be returning to pick up further books. I feel terrible, since I did get a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for a review, but I honestly just didn’t like it. It will go into my Little Free Library though, and perhaps the next reader will experience the magic that I missed.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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