I have been holding myself back from sharing this review earlier, but all I want to do is talk about this book! The time has come, I am unleashing the beast and all the stars!
Author: Sarah Stovell
Publisher: Orenda Books
Date of publication: June 2017
Format: Advanced Copy Paperback
Number of pages: 300
Bo Luxton has it all—a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name. Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend. When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops. Or does it? Breathlessly pacey, taut and terrifying, Exquisite is a startlingly original and unbalancing psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last page.
What’s in a title?
Sometimes, a wise message, an idiom, a single word, a hidden message that you will only understand when you reach the end of the story, as a last word printed its image will be stuck in your head forever.
The book I am talking about today has a definition for title.
Say the word out loud. I did it, and even with my French accent, it sounds gorgeous. Gorgeous and sensual. Gorgeous, sensual, and dangerous. Maybe because of the X we have learned to associate with danger. Maybe because the most beautiful things can also be the most dangerous ones.
Bo Luxton is a successful writer, a bored wife, a happy mother.
Alice Dark is a young girl with a dream, stuck in a life she doesn’t fit it, lacking in confidence but full of what youth has best to offer.
Their encounter was written in the stars. Well, more on a paper for a writing retreat, but right from the start, I could see the cracks in both women. Through a superb writing, Sarah Stovell depicted two completely different but complementary pictures. City and countryside, youth and… well, not so youngish. One successful and one aspiring to be. Two faces of a coin, two parallel lines running so close to each other that they were bound to break the law of physics and collide.
I was not prepared for the intensity and the impact the story had on me. Crime stories easily let you say you did not see the twists coming. Here, you see something coming, or better, you feel it. It is right in front of you. Except you can’t make out what it is. The twist is intertwined in each and every word. You see the warning, you notice the blurring lines, but you don’t discern the limits. Until you reach them in the most extreme way.
What struck me first was the lyrical tone of the story. The feminine voices jumping from the pages. Quiet, wise, and happy when Bo was the captain. Insecure, lost, and willing when Alice took over. Nothing to fear. Words flowed smoothly as both women learned about each other, the slow pace only broken by the appearance of a hint, here and there, calmly building the undercurrent of something more. More of what? More of everything. But most of all, more feelings. Sarah Stovell captured the essence of women, spreading it all over her pages, stretching it until it breaks, revealing what’s hidden deep inside and only scarcely comes to light. Sensuality, vulnerability, strength, determination, she reminded me women are frighteningly unpredictable and mesmerizing creatures.
I don’t know when it happened but before I could realize it, I knew this was no ordinary story about women’s friendship. It doesn’t happen over one page. The feeling creeps into the pages as you dive deeper into Bo and Alice’s lives, scars and relationship. This is no fast-paced movie with actions thrown at you. What starts as a beautiful narrative turns into a tale filled with thorns ready to carefully spill the blood without any warning. Sarah Stovell masterfully plays hide and seek with her readers, showing us what seemingly harmless characters are capable of with an extraordinary writing that leaves the pages speak louder with every chapter, ratcheting a tension stemming from places you did not suspect.
I admit I did not know where the story was taking me for the first part of the story. I let myself being transported by the split narrative, learning to appreciate each voice, each experience, and trying to figure out where everything would go wrong. I was met with the strongest feelings. The fact both characters are writers had me thinking both were sensitive… Oversensitive? Because we know the best stories come from people who listen, observe, feel, so much more intensively that the rest of us. At the core of their beings, there is a bottomless well where feelings build and ideas are forged. This place is a blessing, but it such extremes emotions can lead to the worst.
I loved living the life of a published author, trying Bo’s shoes as she never learned how to appreciate the excitement she triggers in others, I rooted for Alice and her struggles with writing, I could almost touch those characters as they showed me a side of my hobby I am not used to, as I’m on the end of the line, where shiny books are waiting for me.
But this was only the bright side of the picture.
A relationship is at the heart of this story. One I thought I had figured out early on, just to be thrown into a tailspin of sensual images, questionable appearances, subterfuges, doubts and heartbreaks, all in the name of love. There are so many loves. Fabulous ones. Magical ones. At least, that how they all start until they turn sour. Until you start thinking again. But can you trust your mind when your heart is at the center of your life? How wrong can you read the signs? How far can you go? One sitting, a few hours, and the shadow of motivation, manipulation, love wearing its most appealing clothes to trap you into a relationship you can’t get rid of unscarred. I couldn’t and wouldn’t leave the book alone. I was shaken to the core by the disturbing but fascinating characters and the ferocity of the emotions coming in waves through my body. I lost myself in this book, and I won one of the best reading experiences I have ever had.
In her stunning debut, Sarah Stovell’s grandiose prose tells a tale of the scars of love. Exquisite is chillingly brilliant and absolutely riveting.
I would like to thank Karen Sullivan for this extraordinary literary journey. This unbiased review is my thanks to her and the author.
You can get the book in your favorite bookstore, on Amazon, or on the Orenda Books’ ebookstore
Sarah Stovell was born in 1977 and spent most of her life in the Home Counties before a season working in a remote North Yorkshire youth hostel made her realise she was a northerner at heart. She now lives in Northumberland with her partner and two children and is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Lincoln University. Her debut psychological thriller, Exquisite, is set in the Lake District.
Find her on Twitter @Sarahlovescrime
And if you’re even more curious, you can find 5 Things About Sarah on my post about the Orenda Team right here!