on September 6, 2011
A young couple, Susan and Alex Wendt, and their toddler daughter Emma move into a new and seemingly perfect apartment in Brooklyn, and life is good. Or at least, life should be good, but things very quickly start to take a turn for the creepy and the icky. Something is definitely not right, but... what is it?
The story is set against a backdrop of a New York City in the grip of a serious bedbug problem. That would be the real New York City, by the way. Here in Cincinnati, Ohio, we have the dubious honor of being the "bedbug capital of the US", and so I know only too well what it's like seemingly never to go a day without hearing or reading some story about how the situation is getting worse, how the hotels, the libraries, the schools, have become breeding grounds and hideouts for the disgusting, blood-sucking little parasites. It's enough to make even the most well-balanced person a little bit paranoid.
Thing is, this book's central character, Susan, shows signs right from the beginning of maybe being a little unbalanced and paranoid, as well as not an especially easy character to like. She's introduced as a former lawyer who gave up working eighteen months prior to the start of the story in order to "concentrate on her art", employing the services of a nanny six hours a day to look after her daughter while she paints, although she hasn't actually got around to doing any painting yet. Susan seems to pretty much loathe the nanny, a pleasant, easygoing graduate student whose character she makes plenty of unpleasant and unsubstantiated judgements about. At one point Susan arrives home from one of her forays into the neighborhood to find Emma bawling inconsolably because of the traumatic experience of having an old black man speak to her. Susan, rational human being that she is, is furious with the nanny for allowing her charge to be put in such mortal peril, and sends her home for the day in disgrace, chalking this incident up among the poor girl's many other "offenses". She is also constantly anxious that her husband, Alex, is secretly angry with and resentful of her for giving up work only to become a slacker when she has the luxury of being able to paint full-time. Alex himself is a photographer and Susan recognizes that he would love the opportunity to go back to taking "real" photos, were it not for the wife and daughter he has to support singlehandedly in their expensive new digs. It seems Alex is worried about the couple's finances, so what does Susan do? Oh yeah, she throws in his face that if the worst comes to the worst she can be working and earning three times what he is by the following week. Nice, huh?
OK, so I think we've established that Susan isn't a character I felt any great warmth towards, and also that she may be a little on the hysterical and flaky side. But that's half the point, I think. Within days of moving into their new Brooklyn brownstone, the Wendts start to suspect they may have a bedbug problem. But do they? Or is it something more? The story starts to get progressively darker and weirder as it shifts from an ordinary enough tale of family tribulations to something more sinister by far, but the reader is left wondering what's real, what's not real, and what's an exaggeration on the part of the neurotic Susan, whose sanity seems to be unravelling further with every page turn.
There's not really much more that I can say without venturing into spoiler territory, so I will wrap it up here, but I'll finish by saying that this is a very well-written and well-paced book, with a creeping sense of unease that gradually builds into outright horror. I pretty much read the entire thing in bed last night between the hours of midnight and 6am, night owl that I am. In retrospect, I would definitely advise against this approach, as if there is one place you do NOT want to read this book, it is in your bed. Now excuse me while I just go burn all my sheets. I may just have to sleep on the couch tonight.