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Book Review: A Simple Favor by Darcey Bell

This book first piqued my interest over the summer. A Simple Favor had recently been made into a movie and the trailer played during every commercial break of Bachelor In Paradise. In some ways, it looked like a standard sexy thriller, but there was something different about it. It was about women being at home and being moms, but in a sexy dangerous way? I was curious. So, when I saw the book at the library this month I wanted to see if it was what I hoped. I was right.

This book is a mix of two genres that I love (and will sound strange): domestic noir and lesbian ghost stories. Let me explain.

I’ll start with domestic noir because it’s more accessible and seems to be making a comeback as part of the #MeToo movement. Essentially, domestic noir is a novel that reveals the dangers of the home. For a long time in literature, the domestic space was considered safe and boring because women inhabited it while men went off and had sexy adventures. But during the Noir era of the 1940s-50s, the perils of the domestic space started to appear in fiction. Authors like Patricia Highsmith and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding were notable for their domestic noir novels like The Price of Salt (later known as Carol) and The Blank Wall, respectively.

Today, domestic noir has been reincarnated not only showing that danger can seep into the domestic space from the outside, but that home can be a danger place in and of itself. The popular novel Big Little Lies is a perfect example of a modern domestic noir and I would argue that A Simple Favor is, too. It shares a lot of qualities with the domestic noirs of yore: slow pace, fickle identities, paranoia, and fearing for your life at home. In fact, A Simple Favor itself references Highsmith’s books many times throughout – the author is Emily’s favorite and copies of her novels are always strewn throughout her house. It’s clear Bell knows her domestic noir history.

Okay, now for the genre that’s a little harder to explain: lesbian ghost stories. In college I took a class called Lesbian Immortal (I went to a women’s college, okay?) and a lot of what we read were books that implied desire between women but never made this desire tangible. Instead lesbianism took on a liminal quality: female characters were always obsessed with other women who were inaccessible to them often times because they were dead. For many years (and arguably still today), mainstream storytelling didn’t really know what to do with female desire. Lesbian desire couldn’t be overtly discussed in the late 1800s – early 1900s and so it lived in the shadows as a palpable but unspoken bond. Thus, the lesbian ghost tradition was born. Later novels like Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier are perfect examples of this lesbian ghostliness: the young protagonist is obsessed with her husband’s first wife, Rebecca, and the entire novel is devoted to her crazed jealousy of Rebecca rather than her love for her husband.

Note that the relationships that play out in these ghost stories are not always those of ‘love’ or even lust. In fact, many of them are bourn out of anger or jealousy. But they all have an intense element of fixation. A Simple Favor mimics this one-sided female obsession with the character of Stephanie. When Emily disappears, Stephanie is fixated on not only finding her, but on the woman herself. She writes obsessively about Emily on her blog, she cares for Emily’s son, and eventually moves into her house and starts sleeping with Emily’s husband. Stephanie’s obsession with Emily is the heart of the novel, which, to me, reminds me of these stories.

The book did have some shortcomings: the end was meh and I sort of tuned out once I figured out what happened to Emily. But, ultimately, it was still such a joy to read a book that played with two tropes of feminist literature that I don’t see often in modern novels. I think as female authors gain more exposure and publishers take domestic stories more seriously we’ll see more powerful stories of women trying to have it all: successful careers and well-behaved children all while dodging a knife in the back.

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