‘The House Across the Lake’ by Riley Sager. Dutton, 368 pages, $27
Whether we admit it or not, voyeurism is kind of a national pastime. How else to explain our fascination with reality TV, court TV — especially involving two bitter celebrity ex-spouses — or even social media. Perhaps the ultimate voyeurism is Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Rear Window,” which Riley Sager pays homage to while adding a modern twist in his highly entertaining “The House Across the Lake.”
Sager imbues realistic suspense — and a bit of spying — into his sixth novel, also a story about loneliness and the need to connect with others. Sager keeps the “Rear Window”-esque plot of “The House Across the Lake” focused keenly on believable characters who may not always be likable but who readers will care deeply about.
Actor Casey Fletcher’s life and career has been on steady downward spiral since her screenwriter husband, Len, drowned a year ago behind their vacation home on Vermont’s Lake Greene. Her only solace has been alcohol, drinking to excess to ease her pain. Fired from her latest Broadway role for being drunk during a performance, Casey retreats to that same Vermont home where she drinks even more. Heavily day drinking, Casey still has the presence of mind to start up her motorboat to rescue from near drowning her neighbor, former supermodel Katherine Royce.
A friendship forms between the two women, whose houses are across the lake from each other. Over coffee, Katherine admits her marriage to Tom is troubled and that his business is in trouble though she is wealthy. Casey becomes fixed on Katherine — drinking more while using high-powered binoculars to watch Katherine’s house, with its glass wall that reflects the lake.
Even Casey admits her obsession is weird. She begins to suspect that Tom wants to kill Katherine, but her imagination won’t be enough for the police. Then, she hears a scream during the night.
Sager ratchets up the suspense in each chapter as he leads “The House Across the Lake” through myriad twists and surprises as he deepens his exploration of his characters. At first Casey and Katherine seem one-dimensional, but their complicated personalities soon emerge.
The foreboding Lake Greene, ringed by only five houses, is a character itself — “darker than a coffin with the lid shut.”
Sager delivers a deliciously eerie plot in “The House Across the Lake.”
‘Counterfeit’ by Kirstin Chen. Morrow, 288 pages, $27.99
On the surface, buying a knock-off luxury purse seems like a benign act and a victimless crime. Slap a realistic logo on quality leather and it resembles a handbag that would have cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Few might be able to tell that so-called Birkin bag is a fake. But the “allure of the ostentatiousness” can be linked to organized crime, duping scores of unsuspecting buyers out of thousands of dollars, as Kirstin Chen explores in “Counterfeit,” her clever third novel.
“Counterfeit” begins as a rather light-hearted story about knockoff handbags and friendship but Chen soon moves her novel into a tale of complicated relationships, the luxury industry, Chinese culture and “how even the firmest moral boundaries could stretch and tear” when unlimited wealth is involved. Chen smoothly moves “Counterfeit” to a harder-edged plot, using the tenets of the heist and grand theft mysteries without resorting to violence, though the story never lacks for suspense.
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Ava Wong is at a low point — a troubled marriage to her transplant surgeon husband, her toddler son Henri has special needs, grief over her mother’s recent death and adrift on hiatus from her job as a tax attorney. As much as she despised that career, being an attorney at least gave her some cachet, and got her out of the house.
Ava is ripe for manipulation when her former Stanford roommate Winnie Fang arrives in San Francisco. An academic scandal forced the then-shy, nerdy Winnie to drop out of college and return to China. But in the past 20 years, Winnie has changed — exuding “rich-rich” wealth, dazzling with her beauty and “extreme self-confidence;” even able to calm Henri during a tantrum.
Winnie has a business plan for Ava: Join in her luxury handbag counterfeit scheme, which Winnie insists is low risk and will give Ava her own income. At first resistant, Ava soon joins when she’s stranded without cash or credit cards during a visit to China, beginning a journey from reluctant part-time employee to full-fledged partner with Winnie.
Dealing with the counterfeits expands from simple transactions — “the pure elegance of her scheme” — to intricate situations that involve gangsters. Ava can’t tell anyone what she is doing, and those secrets and lies pile up, alienating her from others except from Winnie.
Chen persuasively illustrates how the seductive power of money, the thrill of being daring — and those beautiful handbags, so many handbags — can change a person. Chen also skillfully shows how Winnie and Ava are complicated women both capable of being manipulated and of manipulating others, and both shaped by their Chinese culture.
“Counterfeit” is genuine storytelling.
Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at [email protected].