Minka Kent writes psychological suspense novels that draw the reader in from the word “go.” Delving into her novels could almost be considered a delectable guilty pleasure except the author’s impressive writing style and ability to channel her first-person narrators down to the most specific detail make her books true gems in contemporary fiction.
The three novels I read, The Memory Watcher, The Perfect Roommate, and The Thinnest Air, are all told in first person, and the protagonists are adrift young women who find themselves getting deeper and deeper into precarious situations. Crafty Autumn in The Memory Watcher and guileless Meadow in The Perfect Roommate become enamored of a world they once only observed as distant spectators, and they both become obsessed with people they perceive to be the perfect couple or the perfect family. Both young women may have become enamored of Meredith and Andrew in The Thinnest Air, but they would soon discover that perception often greatly distorts reality, a prevalent theme in Minka Kent’s work. When the narrative switches to the admired mother’s point of view in The Memory Watcher, we learn how the mom really feels: “Everything about motherhood felt unnatural. It was a polyester suit I could never remove. Scratchy.” That is the author’s trademark succinct, explicit writing.
Kent packs a powerful punch by merely describing the residents of the town through Autumn’s lenses: So much is revealed about the character making the observation and the town she muses about in one single passage. “The supermarket is packed for a Thursday morning. Apparently no one in Monarch Falls has anything better to do this morning. The yoga shop must be closed for renovations? Maybe the coffee shop ran out of soy milk? The bakery out of gluten-free cupcakes?”
As the troubled young women navigate through their daily life, Kent builds suspense at a careful, deliberative pace that works because the reader is so caught up in the characters’ inner thoughts and daily lives. University student Meadow in The Perfect Roommate struggles with her social awkwardness. (“If I were a super hero, social awkwardness would be my power.”) When Meadow sublets a room from pretty, popular, perfect Lauren, she tries to downplay her awkwardness. “As much as I try not to, I beam like an appeased idiot, my ego practically purring like a milk-fed kitten.” She soon finds herself becoming a part of the popular clique. Lauren gifts her with her “old” clothes that look brand new and invites her to lunch at trendy places. “Then I catch a glimpse of myself in the dresser mirror. If I’m going to get sushi at Taki with Lauren and Tessa, I need to look halfway presentable.”
In time, cracks develop in this veneer of Meadow’s new life, and she finds herself uncovering secrets that could pose great danger to her.
Autumn’s world takes unexpected turns as well, but it is her own schemes that falter as realities set in. For very personal reasons, she stalks a seemingly perfect family on social media. She finds it so easy. “Social media was a click-of-the-mouse smorgasbord.” When she maneuvers her way into employment with the family, she thinks she hit the jackpot. She relishes babysitting the family’s children. “Monday is chlorine and sunscreen scented with a high in the upper 80s.”
Realities set in and Autumn grows disillusioned with this perfect family and the persona she invented for herself to gain access to it. “I’m already bored with this schtick. It’s eating away at me like a flesh-eating disease while simultaneously killing me from the inside.” The stakes rise when she and those around her become implicated in a possible murder.
While Meadow Cupples in The Perfect Roomate shares some traits with Autumn, she is not a plotter. Things happen, good and bad, and she acts and reacts. As she states at the beginning of the novel: “All I needed was a cheap room to rent. I didn’t plan this. I swear.” She lacks self-esteem and confidence, and she finds herself easily influenced. Perhaps when she describes her own mother, she is really describing herself:
“But that’s Misty Cupples for you. Tofu. Always morphing into whatever she needs to be, absorbing the likes and interests of the man keeping her bed warm at night.”
The Thinnest Air divides its narration between newly-married Meredith, and her protective, no-nonsense older sister, Greer. When the book opens, we learn that Meredith is missing. Meredith’s narration takes us back to when she first got married until when she got abducted, and Greer’s narration takes place in present time as she’s frantically searching for her sister. Meredith married a handsome, wealthy, indulgent dream of a man, and he moves her to the ski resort town of Glacier Park, Utah.
She tries to become accustomed to her new life as the wife of a very wealthy pillar of the community. She takes classes at the gym because it helps fill the hours in the day. Her manicures and pedicures take up a few more hours a week. She’s stepmom to her husband’s two recalcitrant children. Soon boredom with her new life takes hold, as well as doubts about her “perfect” husband. She tries to convince herself all is good. “I’m perfectly happy in my little Glacier Park bubble, where nothing bad ever happens and breaking news is when Beyoncé and Jay-Z vacation at the Cerulean Sky Ski Resort up the mountain.”
Even before Meredith’s disappearance, Greer worries that her little sister is vanishing. The designer clothes and shoes, the mansion with a guest house and hired help are such a drastic change from their humble childhood. When Meredith surprises Greer by showing up at her coffee shop in New York, Greer’s eyes zoom in on her baby sister’s designer shoes, an indulgence the two sisters used to make fun of. “I just feel like every time I see you, you’re a little less you and a little more someone I hardly recognize,” Greer blurts out.
Greer looks out for Meredith because she always had to fill the void left by their mother. Troubled childhoods are another prevalent theme in Kent’s work. Autumn reminisces on her mom this way: “It reminds me of my mother, of her dirty fingernails and the stench of stale pot smoke wafting from her and clinging to me. I never could wash it off completely.” When Meadow returns “home” for a visit, her mother and current man of the hour barely acknowledge her presence. Kent portrays these troubled pasts with economy. She doesn’t linger on long flashback scenes or a retelling of their childhood. A simple observation or a character’s visit home paint the picture effectively.
If you’re looking for quick-paced, easy suspenseful novels, you’ll definitely find that in Minka Kent’s books. However, you’ll get a lot more than that. Because of the crisp, clever writing and captivating characters, you’ll find yourself totally absorbed and thinking about the books long after you’ve read them.