Dream-home thriller sits on uneven foundation


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A married couple moves into their dream house with predictably nightmarish results in this spooky but spotty domestic thriller from Darcey Bell.

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This article was published 22/01/2022 (203 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A married couple moves into their dream house with predictably nightmarish results in this spooky but spotty domestic thriller from Darcey Bell.

The Chicago-based writer, whose debut novel, A Simple Favor, was adapted into a successful 2018 film, often relies on preposterous plotting but keeps things rolling along with propulsive pacing and a sharp eye for 21st-century social anxieties. Bell knows how to have good fun with bad emotions, deftly drawing out her characters’ feelings of guilt, envy, ambition and schadenfreude. Unfortunately, All I Want, though it showcases many of Bell’s powers, is ultimately undermined by a forced, failed twist ending.

The story unfolds from the viewpoint of Emma, who — as the title suggests — believes she’s finally found all she wants. Ben, her handsome husband, is a New York theatre producer who’s coming off a big hit. (Somewhat hilariously, it’s a hip hop version of the life of Édith Piaf called No Regrets.) They’ve recently come into a hefty inheritance, and Emma is happily pregnant with their first child.

All I Want

Then Ben falls hard for a dilapidated 11,000-square-foot mansion upstate. Decades ago, the house functioned as a euphemistically named “rest home” — actually a drying-out facility for alcoholic Broadway performers with a sinister sideline in dealing with inconveniently pregnant chorus girls.

Ben adores the house and Emma, who loves Ben, is determined to adore it too. But as Ben stays in the city, preoccupied with work, and Emma remains in the country, overseeing a tricky renovation, she becomes more and more unsettled by the home and its dark backstory. As the unexplained happenings start piling up, including the discovery of an ominous unfinished diary, Emma senses a danger that threatens both her and her unborn child.

With Emma referencing pregnancy “brain fog” and wondering whether her condition has made her overly cautious or unusually fearful, Bell gives us an imperilled female protagonist whose perceptions could be seen as unreliable — a thriller device so pervasive it has inspired an upcoming Netflix spoof called The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window.

Emma keeps talking up her golden marriage, supposedly the envy of all their theatre friends, while Bell is simultaneously making it clear that Ben is jerky, conceited, entitled and immature. (His Twitter handle is @PeterPan87!) Bell gives Emma’s passivity and naivete a perfunctory explanation — she had hypercritical parents — but her cluelessness can still be frustrating.

Bell is more skillful dealing with Emma’s prenatal angst. On top of her guilt about consuming refined sugar or fish with high mercury levels, she also worries that impending motherhood means she’ll stop being cool, sexy, spontaneous and fun and because of that, she will lose Ben’s love. “She needs to pretend, for Ben’s sake, and sometimes for her own, that having a baby won’t change her from a person to a mom,” she admits.

Emma’s worst decisions about her increasingly dire situation come from her dread of coming off as a needy, no-fun-nik wife, with Bell shrewdly adding another layer to the “cool girl” trope outlined in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

Tropes are all over place in All I Want. Bell’s characters seem hyper-aware of the pop culture references they are re-enacting, which feels like a sneaky way of dodging charges of cliché. When Emma hires a ridiculously good-looking guy to renovate the house, for example, she jokes about how clichéd it is for a lonely married woman to have a hot contractor.

Movie references abound: The house is described as “Remains of the Day meets Blade Runner” and “a post-apocalyptic Downton Abbey.” We get allusions to The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby, as well as literary nods to Shirley Jackson and Daphne du Maurier.

With its horror riffs, gothic atmosphere and building psychological suspense, this jam-packed novel will keep Bell fans turning the pages, at least until its disastrous conclusion, which goes beyond the convolutions and coincidences that keep the thriller genre ticking along to an ending so ludicrous it violates the unspoken contract between writer and reader.

Alison Gillmor, who writes on pop culture for the Free Press, has about had it with twist endings.

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