Lady, there’s something unappetising in this alphabet
339 pages, Simon & Schuster, €16.99
We meet Erin as she is digging a grave. It’s boring, and it takes forever, but what we really want to know is: why? It makes for an intriguing opening, although one the rest of the book desperately scrambles and fails to live up to.
Something in the Water is the debut from Catherine Steadman, the British actress formerly of Downton Abbey .It certainly seems written for the screen — and is set to be adapted into a film by Reese Witherspoon’s company.
The cover bears the stamp of “Reese’s Book Club”, but fans of Big Little Lies should look elsewhere, as Something in the Water is an insipid and deeply unsatisfying read, padded out with pages of dull, unnecessary detail.
The story follows a so-called “perfect couple”: Mark, an investment banker who loses his job just before the wedding, and Erin, a documentary filmmaker working on her first solo project. It is Mark who funds much of their idyllic lifestyle, including their spacious London home and honeymoon to Bora Bora.
The couple agrees to enjoy their island paradise before returning home to financial ruin, but while scuba diving, they discover a duffel bag filled with enough money to solve all their financial problems. From there, the plot escalates wildly, as the pair start keeping secrets from one another and making increasingly poor decisions.
Erin is our narrator, and an intolerable one at that — a witless fool who muses things like, “should we keep the bad people’s money?”. Mark, meanwhile, remains a wisp-thin fragment, veering between condescending to his wife, sulking at her or seducing her by treating her like a child, calling her “honey” every sentence.
Before we even find anything in the water, we are subjected to the filming of Erin’s documentary, which follows the lives of three prisoners as they prepare for release. They each have varyingly flimsy connections with the central plot, although Steadman is happy to leave their subplots dangling. One is portrayed as a victim of an unfair system, convicted of assisting her mother’s suicide, while the other two are horrendous cliches. The worst offender is Eddie, a 65-year-old cockney gangster with a heart of gold, about whom Erin purrs, “I can tell him more than I’d ever tell Mark.”
With its lightning-fast pacing and frenetic plot twists, the novel feels bloated with Erin’s banal asides (of a Chippendale desk, she observes: “I guess you’re meant to notice these things. I guess that’s the point of them; that’s probably why they’re chosen”) and rambling lectures. She goes to taste her wedding food, and we are treated to an itemised menu with prices; she boards a plane, and offers a sermon on the delights of first class; she watches YouTube videos on how to shoot a gun and gives a detailed recap. Her everywoman perspective is intended to be wry and relatable, but her review of a niche dressage magazine (“It lost me slightly in the horse-feed section, but, overall, interesting stuff. If not directly for its content, then definitely to wonder at the lifestyles, and habits, of its average reader”) is more likely to put readers off.
Apart from Steadman’s short, terse prose style, you can’t but be frustrated
THRILLER Something In The Water Catherine Steadman