Each Unhappy Family is Unhappy in its Own Way
Author: Catherine Steadman
Harry wakes up, battered and bleeding, before a beautiful fireplace in a mansion. She almost lost the game. Everything has gone too far, but she is not the kind of person to cringe at violence. What she did once, she can do again.
It begins with a blissful New York romance. Harry is an up-and-coming novelist and her now fiancé, who proposed in the most perfect way on a snowy day at a skating rink, just so happens to be disgustingly wealthy. As in millions and millions of dollars wealthy. A fairytale, you say.
Perhaps . . . but this is a dark fairytale. With this impending marriage hubby-to-be, Edward, decides it’s time to reconcile with his difficult family. He is the scion of a wealthy empire after all, the one and only heir. He’s afraid to introduce Harry to his wealthy and landed family, however, especially because they want to play a game. But Harry will do anything – anything – to keep him. It’s time to plaster a smile on her face, buy a new dress, and meet the in-laws.
It seems to be going well enough, until Harry’s soon-to-be father-in-law takes her aside and gives her an old cassette. His secret, his confession, and his challenge are on this tape, and Harry must listen. What she hears changes everything. As she gets further into the family, the weird becomes warped and the games become increasingly dangerous. But Harry has secrets of her own and a past that has hardened her to this moment. Game on.
The Family Game is a fun, if flawed, thriller with a page-turning atmosphere, a shifty heroine who closets her darkest deeds even from her dear readers, and a sick family with money, money, money. It’s perfect for fans of mysteries and thrillers with a dark, decaying heart.
The introduction gets readers straight into the heart of the horror. We meet Harry in desperate straits, seemingly abandoned for dead, perhaps dying, but compelled by rage to finish whatever this game is, to save herself and secure her future. It’s intriguing, especially following the switch to several-months-before when everything was lovely dovey, rom-com perfect.
Something about the writing just got to me, and even when the story started to stack up some flaws, I still kept turning pages. Partially, it’s the aura of the mystery. This idea of an orphaned girl, now grown and forcibly toughened, fighting to fit into her new family, is an old, old story with a base appeal. It calls out to our own lonely moments, our own internal fears of not belonging, of not finding a tribe, and it twists the knife because this tribe, appealing as it is in some ways, is deeply, scarily flawed. Queue thriller music and oak lined parlors with the rich and famous and deeply amoral. Fun game, am I right?
Where the story starts to lose steam is with the introduction of the tape. Harry immediately finds a player, a feat in and of itself, but she shows a disgusting amount of inhumane calm. She takes her own sweet time to listen to the tape, despite the horrifying ultimatum of her father-in-law. When she does listen and start to hear just what kind of a monster she is against, she pauses, letting entire days go by before listening to more. Just . . . what? If this was a move to build tension, it failed. This is a smart, survivor character. A mystery novelist. She would have been the first person to listen to the tape, immediately and in its entirety. She also would have not written these dangerous family secrets into her latest bestseller. Get with the program Harry. Also, enough of the weird sexual tension with your creepy father-in-law. Yuck.
Meanwhile, as Harry wastes time, doesn’t finish the tape, writes things she totally shouldn’t, and starts off investigating half-formed theories (that might very well be answered in the tape if she would just listen), Edward’s family brings the weird. This is what I really liked. Enter Krampusnacht – a very real holiday originating from Germany. This segment (I won’t reveal it all, but it is disturbing and messed up in all the right ways), is one of the highlights of the book and does a good job establishing the nature of the family and their “lessons” to one another.
As the Holbeck family weirdness gets well and truly established, the story creeps towards Christmas. This won’t be your usual holly, jolly year and time is running out for Harry to address her father-in-law’s ultimatum and figure out the truths of his taped confessions. Things are spiraling out of control to a deadly degree. Then Christmas hits and the full, bloody, messy game begins . . . and ends in a very predictable, very overdone twist. This is where things got sloppy and predictable and just silly. No, no. This story, this setup, deserved a far better twist than your generic, factory add-on thriller aha-it-was-so-and-so-all-along finale.
Between the conclusion and Harry’s annoying inability to just sit still and listen to the tape that is literarily changing her life, I had to deduct from my enjoyment of an otherwise fun and engaging tale. I’m still glad I read it though. Ultimately, I just had fun with The Family Game, and the good portions were certainly engaging enough to keep me hooked and dashing through the pages, both to learn what shenanigans the dastardly Holbecks were planning and find out exactly what this dire past event in Harry’s life meant. Overall, I enjoyed myself and still recommend this thriller, even though it is deeply flawed. A perfect, atmospheric beach read for stormy days and sinister moods.
– Frances Carden
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