The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Olivia, a writer longing to produce a novel that will be more successful than her book Becky, is made a seductive offer to reconstruct the life of the dead grandmother of a famous billionaire Henry Asherwood the Third, known as Ash, famous as being ‘the sexiest man alive’.  He has a stunning property at Malibu, a housekeeper, Clara, and there amidst the luxury of possessing a wealth of material goods, he also appears to be obsessed by the loss of his beautiful wife, Angelica.

Charley, agent for Olivia, persuades her to take on the challenge of gathering the necessary facts in order to write about Emilia, Ash’s grandmother, so reluctantly Olivia flies to California.  There, within a few days, more questions arise than concrete answers to who Emilia was and had she actually written the famous novel Rebecca.

Olivia has always admired and loved Daphne Du Maurier’s classic gothic romance, Rebecca, and Becky, her second novel, was a reimagining of that narrative from Rebecca’s viewpoint, who was a haunting presence.

Initially it appears to be a lazy ploy to employ some of the mystery and suspense which is handled so well by Du Maurier, but The Fiction Writer is more than this. A handsome, irresistible man, with a shadowy background, who indulges his every whim, drives or is chauffeured in a Tesla or Porsche, and seems to mostly be generous and charming, is a veritable stereotype of the perfect hero.

Olivia, overwhelmed by both her employer and the task she faces, at first is at a loss in this foreign environment but gradually, doubts creep in and the intrigue suggests there are darker secrets lurking. It emerges that Ash’s grandmother and the famous Daphne Du Maurier knew each other as young women in France – as aspiring writers, adding fuel to the suggestion that the authorship is questionable.

Several elements of The Fiction Writer have the hallmark of the gothic thriller, updated in the 21st century. There is dashingly attractive man with a slightly menacing aura, a housekeeper who is coldly efficient and difficult to trust, an unstable Aunt in a nursing home who unexpectedly makes wild assertions. The house itself is intimidating in its excess of cold glass, large rooms with dark somber decor. Add hints of poisoned drinks, cars speeding on winding roads, and repeated excuses to delay Olivia’s access to important sources – the journals, and a reader’s attention is held.

The pace accelerates and the climax is indeed unexpected. The epilogue neatly brings an enjoyable escape to a happy finale.

Jillian Cantor has written 11 novels, and these have been translated into 13 languages. They are mostly historical fiction, so the Malibu saga is a departure for this successful novelist.

Many will enjoy this book, but I have mild reservations. At times, the narrative is muddled, and I longed for more dimension to the characters of Clara and Ash.

Confusion, too, occurs with role of the nonexistent Bex.

Probably the best feature is the denouement right at the very end when we learn the true  identity of the Fiction Writer…

The Fiction Writer

[2023]

by Jillian Cantor

Simon and Schuster

ISBN 978 176142 242 3

$32.99; 296pp

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