Harriet Lane's second novel, "Her," is, on its surface, the story of two women's lives as mothers. And while, yes, I do sit here typing amid broken crayons, diaper creams, and stuffed owls and duckies, this is not a story meant only for me. Because these lives intersect in complex ways and lay fertile ground for narrative possibility. Also? Harriet Lane is a fantastic writer.
One day in a London square Nina Bremner spots Emma Nash, a woman she knows from her past, from afar. Emma is visibly pregnant and utterly exhausted by her toddler, Christopher. "I've found you," thinks Nina, though we have no idea just where she left her and why she was lost.
So begins a domestic thriller told in the alternating voices of Nina and Emma who, though close in age, are at different junctures in their lives. Emma, parent to a 3-year-old and pregnant with her second child, is in the most insistent and physically taxing stretch of motherhood. She is all chaos and untidiness. The ceiling of her son's bedroom has a spreading brown spot. After the birth of her daughter, Cecily, she is again tethered to an infant: "…I listen to the sound of her swallowing, great greedy gasping gulps, and feel her sigh and relax against me, as if she's abandoning a grievance." The woman she once was, a TV producer smartly dressed and out for a two-martini lunch, shadows Emma.
Nina, on the other hand, has a teenaged daughter, Sophie, who is well into breaking-curfew stage and is beginning to leave her mother far behind. "I look at my child now, standing there in the hall in martyred resignation…and I'm not sure who she is," thinks Nina. A successful artist with an equally successful second husband, Nina is the epitome of equanimity in her strappy sandals, soft sweaters, and, Emma notes when she first sees her, "slim brown limbs, a simple rather boyish haircut." Nina's father, a narcissistic film composer who has star-bedded his way into the circle of celebrity, ignored Nina as a child and now as an adult, which informs a good deal of her suppressed rage.
In lesser hands these women could be mere tropes, but the particular way they describe each other and the world around them — a salad mixed with bare hands, the local flora and fauna, each other's homes — elevates them from caricatures to singular, believable characters. Are they likable? We access too many of their ugly inner thoughts to find them appealing, but it is clear that Lane is working purposefully to challenge the notion that characters must be agreeable. What we do need, Lane proves, is to know them intimately.
When Nina shows up at Emma's disorderly home after finding her wallet, it seems that a past friendship, or perhaps a romance, will again bloom. But Nina's actions are never what they seem: Instead, Nina reveals that she actually stole Emma's wallet, part of a chilling strategy to insert herself into Emma's life. And so she does.
Nina invites Emma to lunch, shows up to babysit her children and later offers up her luxurious summer home.
Emma cannot believe her good fortune. What on Earth does Nina want with baby-laden Emma? Apparently, Nina wants revenge. And in a series of heart-stopping incidents, Nina exacts it, secretly putting Emma's children in harm's way. Only she understands the reason for her cruelty; the author chooses not to let the reader in on it.
Lane's prose gets at how these women's perfections and imperfections mark them. When they enter each other's private spaces their socioeconomic imbalance rises to the surface, as does Emma's shame and Nina's recognition of her own affluence. Later, when Emma and her family borrow Nina's modern, luxurious and nearly empty home in France, the complexity of one woman stepping into another's life is uncomfortably palpable. In showing the way in which Nina and Emma perceive exteriors, Lane reveals the injustices, joys and unhappiness of their interiors.
But there are great lapses in "Her." For one, we are expected to believe that though these women crossed paths in their late teens and Nina remembers every moment of it, Emma has no sure memory of this time. For another, the book's alternating points of view are effective in moving the plot, but we also are forced to experience Nina's and Emma's similar rehashings of the mundane conversations they've had in a way that reveals no new information whatsoever.
Most egregious here, though, is the approach to the story's resolution. It is the rule of a revenge narrative that we get its origin story. And so as Nina continues to endanger Emma's children, one imagines the motivation for such viciousness will be a good one. But when Nina finally reveals what has set her on this destructive path, it barely registers. The suspense with which I tore through this novel ends with a whisper.
"Her" thrives in its psychological investigations. The cost of the past, the way we tell stories, and the fascinating power dynamics, resentments, memories and fleeting hopes of these women as they negotiate their lives is wonderfully executed. It's the thriller element that could be, well, a lot more thrilling.
Gilmore is the author, most recently, of "The Mothers."
Little, Brown: 272 pp., $26