Winter Thrillers

The Thrill of It All: Page-turning winter books you won't be able to put down

The weather outside isn't the only thing that's frightful: The season's most heart-pounding novels are a riveting mix of murder, mayhem, and mystery

Mommies Dearest

Parenting — the good, the bad, and the criminally insane — takes center stage in two of the new year's most hyped literary debuts, both already slated for major screen adaptations.

By Leah Greenblatt

The Push, Girl A
Credit: Penguin Random House (2)

Whatever the sins of the father, society seems to save a particular, heinous place for bad mothering. What kind of storybook monster or malignant narcissist must a woman be, to so debase her own biology? That's the infinitely messy subject a high-profile pair of new novels can only begin to explore — though they find a lot of smart, discomfiting things to say along the way.

Blythe Connor, the fraught narrator of Ashley Audrain's The Push, hails from a long line of what you might call maternal malpractice: distant, damaged women whose moods and preoccupations have become their unlucky daughters' legacy.

When she goes off to college and finds love with a budding architect who seems to move so easily through the world — his name is Fox, but his spirit animal might as well be a golden retriever — she allows herself to imagine a brighter, simpler kind of parenthood. But their firstborn, when she arrives after several years of newlywed bliss, doesn't bring the flood of endorphins Blythe was hoping for. Baby Violet is strange, fussy, slow to bond and sleep through the night; and as she grows, so does the coldness between them — a fissure Fox either fails or refuses to see. And when a second child comes, the fragile balance of their little family tips over from something merely troubling to true calamity.

Abigail Dean wastes no time diving into the wreckage of the Gracie clan in Girl A, a macabre tale of six siblings whose claim to fame is that they've managed to survive childhood at all. Raised by religious zealots in a rural ruin the local British tabloids have dubbed the House of Horrors, eldest daughter Lex is the one who got away, literally: At 15, emaciated and disoriented, she managed to escape and set them all free. More than a dozen years on, she's become a model of recovery — if you squint; beneath the Brooklyn loft and busy career as a corporate lawyer, her psyche is still an open wound. So when their mother finally succumbs to cancer in a women's prison, bringing the surviving Gracie children back into one another's orbits, everything buried begins to crack open again.

Both Push and Girl arrive on a publishing-world high, with the former optioned for film and TV rights by producer David Heyman (Marriage Story, Gravity), and the latter for a series set to be helmed by Emmy-winning Chernobyl director Johan Renck. Audrain's book, propulsively scripted as it already reads on the page, should lend itself well to movie length (as did another novel it echoes, Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin). Dean's, despite a late-game twist, often reads more like a slow-burn character study, though it's richer for it. What both do vividly is play their parental misdeeds not just for literary intrigue but real, nightmarish resonance: mothers of invention till the end. The Push B; Girl A B+

Writer to Watch: Sarah Gailey

The Magic for Liars author, 30, merges sci-fi with domestic thriller in The Echo Wife.

By David Canfield

Sarah Gailey
Credit: Allan Amato

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your book follows a husband, a wife, and a clone of the wife created by the husband. What did you want to explore?

SARAH GAILEY: So much of this book came out of me processing the end of my own marriage — which was nothing like the one in the book and did not involve clones of any variety, to be clear. I [was questioning] who I was outside of that deeply important relationship and what kind of person I'd have needed to be in order to make that marriage work.

You're known for sci-fi. Why take on a domestic thriller?

When I decided to approach [cloning], I wanted to root it in grounded relationships, and I also wanted to examine the question of identity and origins, which fits just as well in a clone story as it does in a divorce narrative. What better way to marry the two than a domestic thriller?

The relationship between the wife and her clone is central...

[They] are, in many ways, like sisters. They're deeply different, even though they come from fundamentally the same place. There's the question of shortcoming. Who is it better to be? They need to support and care for each other even as they are threatened [and] compare themselves to each other. That, in any relationship, is the hardest thing of all.

Three More Thrillers to Check Out

The Cousins; The Captive; The Wife Upstairs
Credit: Illustration by EW

A Family Affair: The Cousins by Karen M. McManus

Three teenage children of estranged siblings descend on a Nantucket-like island (where their wealthy, WASPy, and highly-aggrieved grandmother holds court) to work summer jobs at the family's resort. The cousins begin to uncover a decades-old crime and cover-up that threaten their livelihoods and — this is a thriller, after all — their lives. —Seija Rankin

A Classic-Lit Riff: The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

The well-worn "wife in the attic" trope provides fodder for a compulsively readable tale that flips Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre on its head — this version skips the coming-of-age and opens as heroine Jane arrives in a gated community in Birmingham. The result is a gothic thriller laced with arsenic. —Maureen Lee Lenker

A Twisty Western: The Captive by Fiona King Foster

A fugitive story layered in frigid atmosphere, Foster's modern-day-set corker carries an Old Western appeal as it follows Brooke, a farmer who lives in an isolated rural state with her husband and two daughters. She entangles them on a tense journey after she's attacked by a local drugrunner — and hides fromt hem the real reason why. —David Canfield

Related content: