IMAGINE THIS: you arrive home to the top floor of a Williamsburg clapboard row house with a bag of pignoli cookies, a guilt gift for your fiancé in hand. You find your beloved dogs — one a Great Pyrenees who’s slept on your bed since she was eight weeks old; the other two, lovable pit bull mixes you’ve been fostering — in an agitated state, their fur matted with blood. You walk into the bedroom and spot your other beloved. He’s unrecognizable, mauled, his legs no longer attached to his torso.
Such is the unthinkable horror that faces the protagonist in the attention-grabbing opening of The Hand That Feeds You, a psychological thriller by A.J. Rich. Unsurprisingly, the novel’s protagonist goes into shock and finds herself in the psych ward at Bellevue.
A student at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Morgan Prager is studying victims. More specifically, she’s studying pathological altruism. Operating under the assumption that women can attract predators through extreme selflessness and hyper-empathy (a controversial premise), she creates a test to identify female victims of online sexual predators. Her research involves prowling online dating sites, where, in addition to inventing fake profiles for women supposedly at risk, she creates a control persona, a “shy, earnest, workaholic do-gooder, who could laugh at herself and liked sex” — in other words, herself. That’s how she meets her fiancé, Bennett.
One way to gauge men’s responses is to count the number of I’s in his email: the average is 19. But Bennett’s first email is a questionnaire asking all about her. She decides he fits the “type B personality, the nonaggressive male, the type of guy your mother wants you to marry.” They agree to meet at an inn in Maine, where he’ll be waiting for her in their room. A risky move, but she trusts him. Perhaps you can see where this is going.
Morgan is still at Bellevue when her brother Stephen discovers Bennett’s parents don’t exist. Not only that: There’s no record of Bennett having lived in his supposed hometown. In tune with genre convention, Morgan leaves the psych ward and sets out to investigate her late fiancé in a fit of amateur (though in this case aided by her professional aspirations) detective work. She discovers Bennett lied to her about, well, his entire identity. It turns out she wasn’t his only fiancé. The stakes escalate when Morgan discovers Bennett’s other fiancé was recently murdered.
Morgan feels responsible for Bennett’s death and questions whether she can forgive herself. There’s some attempt to probe these feelings: “You might feel guilty because guilt is more endurable than grief,” her psychiatrist tells her. Yet this aspect of the narrative is neither entirely convincing nor adequately explored. More convincing, however, is Morgan’s embarrassment about being seen as a “victimologist turned victim.” She’s now been a victim not once but twice. An episode of sexual violence motivated her to study victims in the first place, to ask not the most common question (“Why do certain people cross the line?”) but rather why “everyone doesn’t cross the line.” She wants to know what holds her back and how far she is from that line herself.
A.J. Rich is the pseudonym adopted by Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment. Given that their names and biographies appear on the dust jacket of the hardcover edition, the pseudonym seems superfluous. Yet adopting it is a performative act (interestingly, in a recent interview Jill Ciment likens writing to acting), signaling this work is to be kept separate from that of the writers known as Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment (work which is considered more “literary”). The name is also a nod to the genesis of the book, which was written for a friend who was not able to write it herself.
That friend is fellow writer Katherine Russell Rich, author of The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer — And Back and Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language. The book is dedicated to her memory. According to The New York Times, Rich was deceived by a man she loved, a man who’d proposed. Following an episode that aroused her suspicion, she hired a hacker to crack open his e-mail, revealing a Pandora’s box of deceit: he was living with another woman and seeing several others. Rich started writing a novel about the experience, aiming to show how a woman like herself could fall for a pathological liar. Sadly, she didn’t get very far: the breast cancer that was diagnosed in 1988 finally took her life in 2012.
Rich has a small walk-on part in The Hand That Feeds You, as Morgan’s former roommate Kathy, who was diagnosed with breast cancer as a med student and lived for eight more years. “What would Kathy have done?” Morgan wonders. It’s a question the two authors must have continually asked themselves in writing the novel.
Co-authoring is apparently on the rise, particularly when it comes to fantasy, mystery, and thrillers. Yet it’s still relatively rare: how many famous co-authored novels can you come up with? How is it possible, I can’t help but wonder, for two people to inhabit the same imaginative dream space required to write a novel? The New York Times reported that “Ms. Hempel, a gifted stylist who has previously published only short fiction, polished the sentences, while Ms. Ciment acted as the plot architect.”
Perhaps there’s something in the nature of collaboration that keeps you closer to the surface. Fans of Hempel’s short fiction are unlikely to find these sentences recognizably hers; the perfect sentences of her stories and her characteristically brilliant dark humor are nowhere in evidence. Of course, this is the point, and the freedom, of adopting a pseudonym: to try something else, to be someone unlike yourself. Still, Hempel fans ecstatic to hear she’s written a novel will likely be disappointed. The prose has a certain earnestness to it (despite the gruesome subject matter), and a lack of wryness or guile, that is unlike her other work. Yet occasionally something sly slips in, a cliché repurposed, such as when Morgan says the “dogs were the only bone of contention between Bennett and me.”
Jill Ciment, on the other hand, has authored a wider range of work, including five novels, a memoir, and a short story collection. Her novels in particular indicate the talent for plot-driven narrative that she brings to the project. Her latest, Act of God, is a noir-like novel with quirky characters that has more similarities to The Hand That Feeds You than anything Hempel has written.
One thing Hempel fans will recognize is the compassion toward dogs. And those at all familiar with Hempel’s writing will likely not be surprised to know that dogs feature heavily in the plot. Stories like “The Dog of the Marriage” shine a light on the training of guide dogs; this novel illuminates another aspect of the dog world: the fate of dogs accused of violence, as well as the important role played by rescue organizations. For the most part, Morgan displays far more empathy for the dogs in her life than the humans.
This is evident when, unable to confront her grief or properly mourn the loss of the central relationship in her life, Morgan focuses on her now-incarcerated dogs. One of the pit bulls is shot by the police when they come to investigate Bennett’s death; the other two are in lock up. Her conundrum: should she forgive the dogs, attempt to free them? “And here’s how twisted I am. I miss my dogs,” she says to her psychiatrist. Morgan holds the pit bulls responsible for the murder and wants to free Cloud, the Great Pyrenees, whose innocence she maintains. Enter Laurence McKenzie, a handsome animal rights lawyer who comes to her aid, bike helmet in hand.
There can be something satisfying about a predictable, tidy ending, about the familiarity of a well executed, old-fashioned plot arc. It’s comforting to trust that things will be wrapped up. Reading this novel over the course of a weekend felt like binge-watching a suspenseful, plot-driven show on Netflix: it was a quick, enjoyable read. The sentences may be un-Hempel-like, but they are compulsively readable.
And yet although the plot satisfies, the novel is less fulfilling on another level — the characterization of the protagonist. By the end of the book, even after 273 pages, readers gain little insight into Morgan’s character beyond an academic obsession with victimization that led her to become a victim herself. But the expectations I bring to this novel are colored by my admiration for Hempel’s short fiction. To me Hempel’s fiction — particularly her longest work, the novella “Tumble Home” — is all voice, whereas Morgan is characterized by a peculiar lack of voice. The story has none of Hempel’s characteristic economy, where so much can be communicated in a short space, where so much is communicated by what is left unsaid, by blank space on the page.
This is of course unfair, because in attempting to apply the conventions of literary fiction to a different type of book, I’m looking for something that was never intended to be there. The characters may not be especially complex, the romance added for spice can be smelled a mile off, and the ending feels predictable, formulaic. But those same elements make it a satisfying, late night read. So it depends what you come to the book expecting. Check your expectations at the door and read for entertainment: you’ll be up all night.