August 15, 2012

Broken Harbor: A Synchro-Read Review

Two weeks ago my requested copy of Broken Harbor arrived at the library. Then later that day Anne from Modern Mrs. Darcy mentioned on Twitter that her copy had come in too! I asked if she wanted to "synchro-read" and she said sure - so we emailed each other back and forth as we were reading the book.

Here's a quick summary of the book, and then our joint impressions. Anne will also be posting her take on our experiment today, so you should definitely head over to Modern Mrs. Darcy and see her post.

Broken Harbor, by Tana French

Detective Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy (a character who briefly appeared in French's third book, Faithful Place) has gotten a terrible case. A father, Patrick Spain, and two small children, Emma and Jack, are dead, and the mother, Jenny, is in critical condition. At first glance the family seems like they were living the middle class dream - but closer inspection reveals a series of holes in the walls, with baby monitors pointed at them. And their finances were tricky:  Pat had been laid off a few months before, and the Spain's house is in a half-abandoned estate of houses that were never completed when the recession hit.

After the first four chapters:

  1. I skipped Faithful Place. Have you read it? I'm asking because I don't recognize any of these characters in Broken Harbor, which surprised me.
  2. I like the protagonist, so for now I'll forgive him his formulaic cop-with-significant-attachment-to-the-crime role. I'm also suspending criticism of French's familiar storytelling tools, like the foreshadowing that occurs in every book, like p2: "This case should have gone like clockwork. It should have ended up in the textbooks as a shining example...."
  3. Also, the experienced detective working with the newbie feels a little contrived to me. Of course it's an excellent plot device; it gives Scorcher the opportunity to explain all kinds of stuff to the reader that he wouldn't tell the reader directly. And sure, rookie detectives need training in real life, too. But it feels heavy-handed.
  4. The insights about the crime scene, who commits what kind of crimes, how to get Fiona to talk to them: FASCINATING. I really enjoyed those chapters.
I realize that was a lot of criticism, but I'm definitely enjoying it so far. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!
  1. What's up with the holes in the walls of the Spain's house? I find this the most intriguing part of all - it seems so inexplicable. Otherwise it looks like a fairly 'standard' murder-suicide, but the holes are weird and creepy.
  2. Is Scorcher a reliable narrator? I find him largely unsympathetic; is this because of my impressions left over from Faithful Place? Or is this because of his know-it-all comments (like the ones on page 23: "Kids make you soft. You get a detective who's tough as nails, can watch a post-mortem and order a rare steak for lunch; then his wife pops out a sprog and next thing you know he's losing the plot if a victim's under eighteen.")?
  3. I totally get the imagery of the vacant estate - Arizona is full of unfinished developments. I like the setting for the crime; the half-abandoned neighborhoods always feel rather creepy.
  4. I find the foreshadowing a bit heavy-handed (right at the beginning he mentions where this case "went wrong") and I'm kind of worried this is going to be another In the Woods, and I'll be annoyed.

Partway through, here were my thoughts:

  1. What I love about Tana French's writing is her descriptive ability. Like this sentence on p 77, "Jenny had three pairs of Uggs; no drugs, no cash, no dark side." -- which sums up a trendy soccer mom type in just a few words. Or in chapter six where she describes Pat and Jenny as being "throat deep in terror" - which again is instantly evocative.
  2. Scorcher is growing on me. He's almost endlessly patient with his sister, and I like that he and his newbie partner Richie are finally finding a rapport. I still question his reliability as a narrator though - I'll be interested to see if the bad ending foreshadowed at the very beginning and toward the end of chapter 11 is Scorcher's fault or maybe Richie's.  
  3. Speaking of -- ok, the foreshadowing at the very beginning was annoying. But the end of chapter 11 makes me SO CURIOUS! I want to read the whole book lickety-split now.

 Our overall impressions:


  1. I didn't love it. It was ok, but I found the end frustrating à la In the Woods. I still adore French's writing abilities, but the way her characters act sometimes strikes me as unlikely. I don't want to give away too much about the end of the book - but let's just say that the motivations of some of the characters seem a bit farfetched.
  2. I did like the cohesive themes running through the book - on the nature of friendship, truth, and sanity; and how easy it is to tip from sane to insane. Almost every character's sanity comes into question at some point, and I like how the nature for/reason of the insanity was sometimes surprising. I appreciated how some characters were lying to protect friendships, and others' versions of friendship precluded them from lying. I also enjoyed the parallels between the case and what was happening in Scorcher's personal life.
  3. So overall, I'll still keep reading Tana French, but I much preferred The Likeness  and Faithful Place to this one.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Should I recommend this to my grandma? Um...I wouldn't. There is a lot of swearing. And gory autopsy details, shudder.

  1. Yes! She's so great at descriptions. Wishing now that I'd jotted some down!
  2. I've been sympathetic to Scorcher from the beginning, and have thought that he is a reliable narrator--or that he's trying to be. I get the feeling that this book truly is from his point of view, and not a character standing in for an omniscient narrator (which drives me batty!) But again, the sister is such an obvious plot device. It works, but it still feels heavy-handed. Although I did like the theme the book kept coming back to that originated with Dina: "there isn't any why." 
  3. I totally agree about the ending to Chapter 11!
  4. The whole thing about the baby monitors was such a wonderful set-up. Perfectly creepy and weird, and I didn't have a clue what they'd be for. 
  5. ________ did it? Really? I don't buy it. 
  6. I'll give it 3 stars, and here's why: implausible plot, verging on stupid. I'm supposed to believe *that's* what really happened? And this one felt so formulaic to me. Character with a past + deep-rooted connection to crime scene + foreshadowing blown case on p1 and p100 + creepy psychological tension  = Tana French mystery.
So there you have our joint take on Broken Harbor! That syncro-read thing was pretty fun. I think we'll have to do it again soon. Anyone else wanna join us?

Have you read Broken Harbor? 
What did you think of it? 

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