By Heidi Simmons
by Harlan Coben
Violence against women is at an all time global high. So it makes sense that literature would reflect this unfortunate statistic. In Harlan Coben’s The Stranger (Dutton, 389 pages), suspicion points to a husband when his wife disappears.
Adam Price has the perfect life. He has a beautiful wife, Corinne, and two high-achieving teenage sons. He has a good job and the family is respected and active in their affluent New Jersey suburb.
One day, in a parking lot, a Stranger delivers Adam some news about Corinne. He tells Adam a bizarre deception that Corinne has kept from him for two years. This information throws Adam for a loop.
The Stranger has given him just enough detail to set Adam on the path to discover if it’s true. Yes, Corinne has indeed deceived him!
When Adam confronts Corinne, she calmly refuses to discuss the subject and shuts him down. Baffled by Corinne’s response, Adam considers what this revelation means to him. How serious of an infraction is it? And what happens next? Adam wonders if it’s worth destroying their relationship and the perfect life they have constructed together. He certainly does not want to disrupt their son’s world with a divorce.
After Corinne admits the deception, she makes a date with Adam to discuss the circumstances over a nice dinner at their favorite restaurant. Standing him up, Corinne texts Adam, saying she needs “time away.”
Corinne is not the only one contacted by the Stranger. There are others and one ended up dead. Whatever is going on, besides compromising secrets and blackmail, now includes murder.
Adam finds himself in the middle of a mystery as he tries to figure out who is behind the Stranger and what, if anything, has really happened to his wife.
Trying to get to the bottom of whether Corinne is alive or dead, complications arise and Adam is embroiled in an investigation that makes him look guilty of his wife’s disappearance. Adam must solve the mystery if he is to save himself and his family.
This is author Coben’s 20th book. From the get go, the reader is in capable hands of a skilled storyteller. Short chapters which end with a snap or punch, makes this a quick, involving read.
The plot includes young hackers on a mission to change the world. Nothing on the internet is private. There are people exploiting others or hurting the ones they love because they believe they’re anonymous and can get away with despicable behavior. But what if the hackers could make a few bucks exposing those intimate internet secrets. Perhaps that would stop the behavior? Unfortunately, what they think is a noble cause, turns deadly.
There is also the strange world of suburban life where everyone seems to know everybody’s business. The sport of lacrosse is the main focus for the neighborhood kids. Scholarships are at stake. The team politics — that is the parents who run and coach the organization — make relationships intense and complicated.
The author turns the simple, ordinary and good life of the protagonist upside down. When a spouse goes missing, the mate is always the primary suspect. Adam is an attorney who sees the evidence pointing directly at him. Clearing his name in Corinne’s disappearance may be impossible which makes the ending an unusual and unlikely a surprise.
The convoluted plot gets somewhat detached from Adam and his specific dilemma. There are intersecting sub-stories of others who have been visited by the Stranger that have little or nothing to do with Adam. But Coben delivers important information and a relevant theme that keeps the main narrative engaging and the characters interesting.
In our modern age, does privacy even exists? Is anonymity possible? The ways in which we use our mobile phones and computers leaves an inevitable digital trail.
What’s frightening is the very information that could clear Adam, is the same that may condemn him. It’s a matter of how the authorities choose to interpret data and construct their narrative.
I wanted Corinne’s own explanation for what she did, but we only get Adam’s interpretation. For me, the intense moments that involve Adam’s children lack emotional gravitas. Adam’s character is too analytical, or in denial, to connect with his worried boys. I would have cried if he just hugged his kids. Missing wives have been a popular story to tell, but this is also a missing mother.
Best sellers Gone Girl and Girl on the Train have dealt with similar mysteries around the phenomenon of women who have been abused or murdered by a spouse who in turn finds it impossible to defend himself.
It would be easy to say that The Stranger is capitalizing on a literary trend, but the fact is women go missing everyday. Sadly, in real life, most often the man who is intimately closest, is indeed responsible. Until violence against women stops, there will always be more stories to tell.