There’s a whiff of Scientology in the latest thriller from one of my go to writers, Mark Edwards. Ruth and Adam are a couple on the cusp of becoming the next big thing. Over the summer Ruth will be rehearsing for a new play opening on Broadway, since finding success in a low budget horror film. Adam has written a play and a producer is very interested in looking at it. By happy coincidence they have landed a great house in Brooklyn for the summer. Their friends Jack and Mona, who they met on a cruise when Ruth was performing in The Tempest, offered them the house while they were off on their travels again. One night, in a storm, a young girl knocks on the door asking for Jack and Mona. Adam explains they are away, but Ruth feels bad sending her out into the storm and invites her in for a warm drink and to dry off. The girl is called Eden and she explains that Jack and Mona told her she could always stay with them, if she found herself in NYC. Adam is unsure what to do, because she could be anyone. However, she does seem to know the older couple and it is the sort of thing they would do considering they’ve let Ruth and Adam stay after only just meeting them. They decide to let Eden have the spare room, after all Jack and Mona are back in a few days anyway.
Over the next two days, Eden settles in and they all get along, However, tiny cracks are starting to show in Ruth and Adam’s future. Adam’s meeting with the producer turns out to be more of a fact finding mission on Ruth’s availability. Furiously, he symbolically dumps his script in a bin in Central Park even though he knows it’s a file on his laptop. He is then mugged for his mobile phone. The next day he and Eden go for a drink, and he has a small moan to her about how he will cope when Ruth’s star eclipses him. He’s scared that he may be jealous or it will drive a wedge between them. Jack and Mona are due back Sunday morning, so on Friday night they have a final hurrah. Eden treats them to Japanese food and a bottle of tequila. Before long they are all drunk and there’s dancing in the rain in the yard. Adam passes out soon after. When he wakes the next morning he feels dreadful, worse than any hangover he’s had before. He finds he can’t even get up. He notices Ruth isn’t with him, and assumes she is asleep downstairs. When he is finally able to get up, he is shocked to find that not only is Ruth not downstairs, she and Eden are nowhere to be found. So many questions ran through my mind at this point. Had Eden ever known Jack and Mona? Was that even her real name? Had the women run away together or had something taken place that scared them both? I suspected everyone, even Adam our narrator.
Mark Edwards has written an audacious thriller here. It seems to be a typical domestic thriller, but is actually much broader in scope. Adam and Ruth’s story is just one couple’s experience within a global conspiracy. I love the way Edwards leaves us tiny little clues and red flags. Ruth’s choice of reading material, and Adam’s description of her as a someone seeking spiritual truth seemed important. The bearded man that appeared to be staring at the house the very first night Eden arrived seemed sinister. Although I was suspicious from the beginning, I would have been seriously worried after the incident at the swimming pool. Adam and Eden go for a swim while Ruth is rehearsing and when Adam comes from the changing rooms he finds two young men hitting on Eden. They don’t seem to take no for an answer, but when Adam intervenes, Eden’s demeanour suddenly changes from the helpless victim and she threatens them. She calls them ‘dead men walking’ and I started to wonder if she had lured them in somehow; she seems to enjoy swapping power roles and scaring them. There is a scary certainty in her voice. However, even though I was suspicious about Eden there were more twists and turns in store that I really didn’t see coming.
Ruth seems like a nebulous character. Maybe it’s simply her profession – the actress’s ability to put on many different personas, but I don’t get a full idea of who she is. This could also be what Eden sees; Ruth as the ultimate seeker, willing to shed her identity or at least write over it. She’s on the very cusp of great success all on her own, but it seems like Eden banks on her having that strain of self-doubt underneath. The bit that wonders if she really is enough or whether everything she’s ever wanted just slip through her fingers. What Eden offers is certainty, a guarantee; we can make you a huge success. It reminded me of an anecdote told by the actor Christopher Reeve in one of his memoirs. When he was on Broadway, right on the edge of breaking through into film, he was approached by Scientologists who offered him a personality test. Whatever they found in his personality seemed to almost put them off. His determination ensured his success and that winning aspect to his personality perhaps meant there was nothing to exploit, no angle to use that would lure him in. I think successful cults are very good at noticing that chink in the armour, then using it to draw you in, whether it be self-doubt, imposter syndrome or lack of family. They will bend to become whatever you need at first, until you’re so far in it’s almost impossible to leave. There’s a reason that Scientologists don’t get to hear about the aliens until Operating Thetan III – by this point you’re likely to have spent almost $100,000 in courses to get there and you’re less likely to walk away.
The big finale is followed by a quiet moment where I expected things to be returned to normal. The ending was unexpected and did feel very creepy. The complex aspect of cults is that there will inevitably be some part of its belief system that has good intentions. However, after a while that goodness always becomes corrupted or distorted in some way. Having grown up in an extreme form of Christianity I can see that in essence the belief system was pure. The problems come when that group is threatened in some way by society or when those in positions of power start to enjoy them too much. There’s a point at which, those who love that person have to accept they’ve changed beyond recognition. It’s impossible to belong to an organisation and only take out the good bits, just being there is to accept and condone it all. Adam has tremendous love for Ruth, and was worried that her success might come between them. Instead she is lured away by her need to belong, to believe in something, This is a great weekend read, full of unexpected twists and with a finale worthy of a Hollywood movie.