Hollie Overton’s Baby Doll, like B.A. Paris’s Behind Closed Doors (reviewed here), strikes me as another book done a disservice by its marketing campaign’s comparing it to Gone Girl. I realize this is a classic sales technique; hitching one book to another, explosively popular franchise is a guaranteed way to attract fans looking to re-scratch that itch. But it also establishes reader expectations not always fulfilled.
However else one might feel about Gone Girl, it’s nevertheless fair to say it lived up to its label of taut thriller. Action, albeit often twisted, constantly drives the novel forward, ever tightening the narrative screws.
Baby Doll, by contrast, is really about the emotional fallout after the action has passed. The book’s opening shows Lily Riser, kidnapped at 16 and held captive for 8 years, finally escaping her basement prison with her daughter Sky (fathered by Lily’s kidnapper and habitual rapist, Rick). By page 60, Lily and Sky are reunited with Lily’s family, and Rick is behind bars. And there ends the most action-oriented part of the novel.
It’s not that the remainder of the novel is tension-less. But this tension is rooted in psychological and emotional conflict; labelling such a book a thriller only detracts from the book’s uniqueness in this regard. Many novels already focus on spine-chilling interactions with psychopaths: Gone Girl, Behind Closed Doors, Emma Donoghue’s excellent Room to name but a few. The fact that Baby Doll enters the space of “What happens next?,” starting after most novels close, actually acts as the book’s most intriguing element. How do the deeply damaged victims of such crimes reintegrate into normal life? What happens to the offspring of these terrible unions? How does survivor’s guilt manifest in the family and friends of the vanished loved one? This is ambitious thematic material for Overton to brave tackling, and merits recognition outside the easy label of “thriller.”
That being said, I’m not sure Baby Doll digs into the rich potential of its material as deeply as it might have. At 288 pages, it’s on the slightly shorter side, and is divided into four characters’ perspectives–protagonist Lily, her twin-sister Abby, their mother Eve, and Rick, kidnapping-rapist antagonist. The result of this is that many sensitive issues–What if Lily developed feelings for Rick during her captivity? How can she overcome the twisted understanding of love she learned via Rick’s abuse? How will Lily contend with Sky’s inevitable love for her monstrous father?–receive more of a gloss than an intimate exploration. Eliminating Eve’s perspective would’ve allowed more room to thoroughly and deftly flesh out the remaining characters and their woes, making the novel more intimate, compelling, and profound.
In short, the novel seemed somewhat confused about what it is. It had some thriller elements, but didn’t tighten and terrify the way I’d expect a thriller to do. It tackles the emotional consequences of trauma, but didn’t unfold them as I might’ve sought in a drama.
Yet Baby Doll‘s dénouement does offer a nice twist. And the novel achieved the ever-desirable effect of making me wonder “How’s this all going to end?” as I entered the final pages. Overton also does an excellent job of crafting a protagonist who is a sympathetic victim, but not a helpless one, as she strives admirably toward healing and resolution, despite the obvious emotional obstacles barring her way. The novel’s theme of twins and the unique bonds uniting them adds an intriguing dimension, as well. And if the emotional elements aren’t as finely parsed as they might’ve been, Overton nevertheless does a tidy job of identifying where pitfalls to trauma recovery might lie.
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*Received Advanced Readers Copy for the purposes of review