Sarah Stovell: Exquisite
Published By: Orenda Books
Buy it: here
What the Blurb Says:
Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name. Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend. When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops … Or does it? Breathlessly pacey, taut and terrifying, Exquisite is a startlingly original and unbalancing psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last page.
What I Say:
“It wasn’t my heart, I knew that. It was everything I was. It was all of me, derelict.”
I read Exquisite in just a few sittings. Sarah Stovell has written a brilliantly clever, tightly plotted and thoroughly menacing book. I have to say that it was not what I was expecting, and like many of the books I have read this year, it captivated me and pushed me to read a genre that last year I would never have considered.
Exquisite tells the story of Bo and Alice, two women who love writing and apparently love each other. The action switches between Bo and Alice’s telling of their story and is interspersed with correspondence from a Yorkshire Women’s prison.
Bo is a novelist and also runs a course for new authors. Alice is an aspiring writer, who stuck in a dead-end job with a harmless but useless boyfriend, and decides to enrol on one of Bo’s courses.
When Alice arrives, she is entranced by her, and they quickly bond over the difficult relationships they have with their mothers. It is undeniable that they are drawn to each other from the start. Alice seems to hero-worship Bo, and Bo recognises herself in Alice. She says,
“She was like no one I had ever met before. Except perhaps myself when I was that age.”
Bo and Alice realise they have an intense attraction, but already as a reader you are aware that Bo is not as innocent as she seems. She wants Alice to fall under her spell, she is manipulating Alice from the start and seems to thrive on it.
After the course ends, Alice and Bo correspond via email and Bo, recognising Alice’s talent asks her to come and stay with her in Grasmere so they can work together on her writing. When Bo emails Alice to tell her she loves her, Alice is completely overwhelmed but admits she feels the same way. Then Bo suddenly severs their contact, leaving Alice confused and hurt, waiting for any emotional morsel that Bo will throw her.
“It was all so easy in the end.”
It becomes evident that Bo has Alice exactly where she wants her which she does with a chilling lack of compassion As the women’s lives become intertwined, you feel that their dependence on each other gives their relationship a claustrophobic and intensely inward looking view. Nothing else matters apart from them being together.
To keep Alice close to her, Bo gives her some short stories which she claims she has written solely for her. They shockingly reveal that Bo was prostituted by her mother to earn money for her impoverished family. Bo, Alice discovers, also gave birth to a baby. Unsurprisingly when Bo is unable to cope with the motherhood that has been forced on her, Bo’s mother arranges for a woman to take away and raise the baby. Alice feels that Bo loves and trusts her by telling her such intimate details, and again draws her closer to her.
Then Bo simply stops contacting Alice. Not surprisingly, cut off from Bo, Alice feels numb and barely functions, getting through her days on automatic pilot. It is really powerful to see how Bo is able to control Alice even when she is not geographically close to her – she does it slowly and stealthily, all the while making Alice feel that she is the one with the issues, and that Bo is the stable one in the relationship.
When Alice hears from Bo, she persuades her to give up her flat and life down south and move to Grasmere to be with her. Alice does exactly that, and catches a train, ready to read a pack of Bo’s writing she requested from Bo’s agent. As Alice reads through them, she finds the exact same piece of writing that Bo had claimed she had written only for her. Slowly, the reality of what is happening starts to dawn on Alice, just as she gets a call from Bo telling her it has all been a huge mistake and she shouldn’t come, and that she must delete all the emails they have exchanged…
When she arrives. Bo has left a message at Alice’s flat in Grasmere asking to meet in the local cafe. On going to the cafe, Alice sees Bo is with her husband and children, and Bo starts screaming at Alice to leave her alone and stop stalking her. Alice has given up everything for Bo and now she is alone, humiliated and berated by the woman she loves.
So, is this the end of the story? Far from it, Sarah twists the action to show us Bo’s point of view. Is Bo the victim after all? Is Alice the one who has been taking advantage of her? This shift in narrative is a brilliant piece of writing – have we as readers been played all along and our view of the story has been the wrong one?
Bo’s version of events seem to show us in fact she is well aware of what she is doing and the effect she has on Alice. She attempts to portray Alice as the guilty party who has made Bo’s life hell. I did wonder whether Alice was Bo’s long-lost daughter, but that would have been a far too neat and nice conclusion to Exquisite.
Instead, Bo realises she does love Alice, but that at the same time she cannot allow herself to be with her as it will destroy everything she has. To make sure that she maintains the status quo in the home, she has to ensure that Alice is seen to be the deranged, possessive lover, whilst she is the victim of someone else’s unrequited love.
From then on, Bo makes it her mission to get rid of Alice from her life. One of the most revealing parts of the book for me, is as Bo realises her novel sales are falling, she sees that she can use her experience with Alice as material for her next book to attempt to crawl back into the spotlight.
The only problem is that Alice is refusing to conveniently disappear from Bo’s carefully crafted existence, and starts to collate information about what Bo has really been up to, ready to expose her for the liar she is. Like Bo, she too decides to write about what has happened to her, at the same time Alice’s determination to clear her name and expose Bo comes to a dramatic and shocking confrontation. It is brutal, unexpected and will leave you stunned at how far Bo will go to ensure that she maintains in control of the facade she has worked so hard to construct.
I could tell you how this novel ends, but as a good blogger, I won’t and I will instead tell you to buy the book to see what happens next. I guarantee you won’t work it out, and when you have recovered from the first twist, the final scenes will make your jaw drop!
Exquisite is a brilliant, fast paced and compulsive novel. Right from the start you are drawn into Bo and Alice’s world, and the sublime plotting and devilish twists and turns will keep you turning the pages faster and faster until you reach the breathtaking conclusion. I really can’t wait to see what Sarah Stovell writes next, and I hope I don’t have to wait too long.
I loved it.