From New York Times bestselling and award-winning author Megan Abbott, a chilling and compulsive novel about a family holiday that takes a terrifying turn.
'Splendidly tense and atmospheric - a contemporary Rebecca' MAIL ON SUNDAY
'A novel of almost unbearable tension' IRISH TIMES
'Stunningly twisty' ASHLEY AUDRAIN, author of The Push
Newly married and with a baby on the way, Jacy has everything she ever wanted. When she and her husband, Jed, go to visit his father in his remote cottage, Jacy feels bathed in love by Dr. Ash, if less so by his housekeeper, the enigmatic Mrs. Brandt.
Then Jacy has a health scare. Swiftly, all eyes are on Jacy's condition, and whispers about Jed's long-dead mother seem to be intruding upon the present. As the days pass, Jacy feels trapped in the cottage, her body under the looking glass. But are her fears founded or is this -as is suggested to her-a stubborn refusal to take necessary precautions to protect her unborn child? The dense woods surrounding the cottage are full of dangers, but are the greater ones inside?
'Abbott ratchets up the menace towards an unexpected ending in a claustrophobic chiller about how men deny women agency' GUARDIAN
'Sultry, subversive, shades of Rebecca ... I loved it' HARRIET TYCE, author of It Ends at Midnight
'Feverish, razor sharp, and pulsing with dread' RILEY SAGER, author of The House Across the Lake
'Spectacular. Her best yet. Kind of Rosemary's Baby meets Rebecca. Nobody, but nobody does creeping dread like she does' SAM BAKER
Release date: May 30, 2023
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Print pages: 304
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Listen to a sample
Beware the Woman
We’d been driving forever, the Midwest finally sneaking up on us, the hard smack of road-salt as I-75 widened and widened again.
I’d never seen Jed so nervous. Excited. Both. It was hard to tell.
It was our first road trip together and everything felt impossibly fun: the oversized rental car—a toothpaste-white Chevy—lurching across the lanes, the burr of the air conditioner, the rest stops with the beef jerky and neon flip-flops, the toaster muffins in plastic wrap and the hot dogs slinking on an endless roller grill.
On the crinkly map we traced our route up the great paw of Michigan, I-75 snaking up the state like a wriggly vein.
Sometimes we sang along to indifferent radio. Lite FM and classic rock, the occasional Christian devotional show.
Sometimes we clasped hands clammy from shivering Big Gulps in the cupholders.
Sometimes we made long lists of baby names. We’d already decided we didn’t want to know the sex. We didn’t care, and just naming names made it feel glorious and impossible all over again, my hand on my belly.
I never even thought I’d have a baby, he was saying, and now here I am and it’s the rightest thing I’ve ever done, and we’re rattling off names, Jed rejecting my favorite, “Molly,” swiftly and without mercy, confessing finally that he was once sick with loveover a girl named Molly Kee at summer camp when he was fifteen.
That can’t be true, I teased. You told me you’d never been in love before.
He had said it—I never forgot it—one muggy Sunday morning, both of us too tired to make coffee, our arms and legs entwined.
Well, you know, he said now, shrugging, smiling a little, caught.
Sick with love, the phrase so unlikely from his solid, square-jawed Midwestern mouth, the words made me inexplicably sad. Before I knew it, I was crying. My sunglasses sticky from it. It makes me feel silly and sad to think of it now. To feel so close, so encircled and encircling with love and yet . . .
Is it the hormones? That’s what he kept saying, hearing the hitch in my voice, sneaking anxious looks at me, wondering if he should pull over.
I’m fine, I sputtered, and then laughed even as the tears slathered me, and somehow he thought that meant keep going, because he kept going, talking about this Molly girl, how she had a chipped tooth that drove him crazy, and how she could land bullseye after bullseye at archery with a longbow she made herself, and how she sang “Coat of Many Colors” at the talent show, and what he would have done, back then, for one glancing touch of the back of her left knee.
Behind my sunglasses, I was crying and couldn’t stop and he kept going because he couldn’t see. Crying behind one’s sunglasses—is there anything lonelier than that?
Finally, my voice became a sob and then he looked at me and stopped the car, skittering up the shoulder.
Jacy, Jacy . . . what’s wrong? What did I do?
I wanted to say, Aren’t you sick with love for me?
What woman doesn’t want that, especially with her belly slowly swelling with their first child?
Why did I tell you that? he said at last, shaking his head, grabbing my hand, gripping it until all our fingers went white. I don’t know why I told you that.
And I felt silly. I was silly. The hormones, yes. The hormones are killing, killing.
It’s just the hormones, I swear.
Thirty-two years old, too old to be in love like this, with such teen ferocity and force, but that was how it was and there was no fighting it. Why would I?
I’ve had men in love with me before—high school Paul, the poet who used to bake me cookies, and Benjy, who broke both my heart and five front windows of the dorm I lived in. I’ve had men in love with me before, but it never felt like this. Never both of us in the same way at the same time, like two spiders sewing a silken web together.
After our city hall wedding, four months to the day we met, I remember walking into that impromptu party at that random Irish bar (the Bucket of Blood!) near the courthouse, walking as if I were floating, as if I were a queen entering a palace, a goddess entering heaven. It was all so haphazard and lovely, a clutch of friends hauling a Party City bag bursting with tissue streamers, birdseed confetti, plastic champagne flutes, hanging a curling just married sign above the steam tables, corned beef and cabbage for the day drinkers.
And after everyone had left and we were kicking up streamers under our feet as we dragged ourselves along the carpet, florid and undulating, I remember nearly tripping—an errant champagne stem snapped under my foot—and reaching for him, clutching the front of his shirt.
And I could feel his heart beating like a rabbit’s under my hand. Fast and frightened, pounding and alive and terrified.
It charmed me, moved me.
Here he was, a man so strong, so upright, a good man, a man born with certain advantages: middle-class comforts, a college fund, no dependents, a thirty-year-old white man, a craftsman who works with his hands, a solid and kind man with an artistic eye and artistic yearnings. You might think a man like that has never been acquainted with doubt, with fear, with desperation.
And yet. And yet.
I looked up at his face, a narrow slick of frosting on his collar from the cake-cutting—
I looked up at his face, my hand over his thundering heart—
And his eyes were shining with such love, I tell you.
I tell you, it was love. It was love, even if it scared him. The love scared him.
But the truth was Jed ran into the fire. That’s how he’d put it: with the proposal, the wedding, the look on his face when the pregnancy stick was still shivering in my hand. He ran into it, the fire, the fear. He said it made him feel alive.
He was looking at me, eyes blinking as if shaking off the sandman’s grit from them. Like my grandma when I was little, putting her cool hand over my crusted eyes.
He was looking at me, his face full of wonder—Could this be true? Could it? Could we be married? Could you be my wife?
He was looking at me like I’d saved his life. Which, he whispered to me in the blue-dark of our honeymoon suite hours later, I had.
I never thought this would happen to me, Jed told me that night, our wedding night. I’d given up on it happening.
When he said it, I thought, how strange for a man to feel that. To feel like a girl, waiting, waiting, like when all her friends at school got their first period, one by one, the tampons in their purse zipper pocket, the whispers about the ruby slick on their underpants and now they were women . . .
I was afraid I wasn’t made for it, he told me.
For marriage? I asked, smiling gently, nudging him, teasing. Or love?
For anything, he said. And that’s when I saw it in his eyes. How deep this went and how impenetrable it felt. How had I never known this. How—
For anything but being alone.
Most men are that way, sweetie, my mom always said. And it doesn’t change when they get married. They think if they get married, it’ll change it. You think that too. But they’re lone wolves, these kinds of men. Most men.
But that was my mother’s generation, the world they lived in, the world of women huddled in kitchens and over playpens, with their husbands at the grill, a ring of khakis, fingers clipping beer necks and busting chops over a bad trade, never able to connect, to relate, unless on the football field, on the ice, feelings forever unspoken, unspoiled.
Jacy went and married a signmaker! my mother shouted to Aunt Laraine when I called her, the two of them forever sitting at my mother’s kitchen table, sneaking cigarettes and beating their breasts over the news.
I had to explain, yet again, that Jed was not merely a signmaker. That neon is both an art and a science, and yes, while commissions—for the occasional casino, for food trucks, trendy hotels—and restorations were his primary income, he also worked on his own pieces (like the picture I sent you!) and on restoring grand old signs from back before jumbotrons and LED and plastic, back in the day when neon was king.
If you could see him in his studio, I wanted to say. Heating the glass tubes with torches, bending them into these glorious glowing creations. Manipulating voltage and gas, heat and pressure. The red of neon, the cool blue of argon. The inside of each tube coated with colored powder, the blending of colors. The scorching pinks and sizzling purples.
I remember when he first showed me. No gloves, he said, laying his hand on the radiant tube, its center flamed, his face glowing. Gloves get in the way.
How I gasped when he placed his hand on the searing glass. The hiss of the constant flame.
He had burned his hands countless times, patches on his palm, a knuckle, his thumb joint, like his hand had been put back together hastily. There were hard flaps on his skin where he could barely feel and I loved when they brushed against my cheek, between my thighs.
We made promises that night, our wedding night. We drained the bottle of Mumm’s—the one that appeared at our apartment in a misted bucket courtesy of my new father-in-law, whom I’d yet to meet. We drained the whole thing while Jed washed my hair over the sink to get all the confetti out, the birdseed.
His hands on my hair, the strength of those hands, their delicacy—a sculptor’s hands, a sculpture of heat and light—and I had to have him all over again, sinking to my knees on the soft pill of the bath rug.
The sweetness of him, the amniotic salt, the shudder that went through him.
It’s real and it’s forever, I had told my mom over the phone the next morning.
Good, honey, she said, a choke in her voice. If you don’t think that now, you’re really in trouble.
Yes, it had happened fast. Too fast for our families to come to the wedding.
I had had to make amends to my mom, my cousins, my aunt and uncle.
But Jed only had his dad and his dad was traveling. I had the feeling they weren’t close, though it was hard to know.
The following week, we had dinner with him on our way out west for our honeymoon. And Jed was nervous, so nervous, but it had gone so well. Perfect, really.
He’s here, Jed said, his eyes bright, head bobbing, as we stood in the hotel lobby.
Under the garish chandelier, a silver-haired man smiled at us, his teeth gleaming.
Doctor Ash, I said, so tentative.
I’d had this idea of him—from Jed’s stories, from the blurry father-and-son-at-graduation photo, radiator-curled, on Jed’s bookshelf—that he was an old-school dad, a Midwestern white dude, the kind all those fish-tackle and golf-club Father’s Day cards are for.
So I was surprised how dapper he was, handsome like Jed, but Jed in nice clothing, a fine wool suit and stylish Italian loafers alongside Jed’s flannel and jeans.
His voice so low and gentle, a little burr in it, I felt instantly at ease. He started by teasing me gently about the sort of woman who’d take on an Ash man. Then he said he was sorry we hadn’t met before, but not to blame Jed. After all, he lived way up in the tippy top of Michigan, the vacation home of Jed’s childhood, and didn’t travel much in his early retirement. After a lifetime of travel for work, he laughed, all I want to do is stay home, in my study, with my books and my bourbon.
I said that sounded pretty wonderful to me.
But mostly, he said, he wanted to make sure Jed was taking good care of me and whether he washed the dishes and to make sure I don’t, not once, pick up after him, not even a stray sock.
As if Jed ever left socks around, or anything.
What matters most to me is that whenever you’re talking he’s listening.
What matters most to me is that you feel loved. Jed is, in some ways, still learning to love.
And he explained that Jed’s mom, dying as she did, when he was so young—well, that had to leave its marks.
I tried to give him everything, he said. But there are limits to what a father can offer a son. Maybe that makes me sound old-fashioned.
I told him it did but only in the best way.
He took us to the finest restaurant in town, cracked crab and French wine, and he gave me all his attention. He wanted to know all about me, starting at the beginning. The warm feeling when he smiled at Jed a mere ten minutes into dinner, telling him, My boy, you did good.
After two glasses, my own head slightly wobbly, he started regaling us with stories of his own blessed wedding to Jed’s late mother, gone since Jed was a baby. They’d exchanged vows overlooking Bridalveil Falls in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and he really, truly had forgotten the ring and they’d had to improvise with a gumball-machine ring from a nearby IGA, even though everyone warned them it was bad luck.
How delightful and surprising it had been to watch Jed watching his father. Doctor Ash had raised his glass to toast us and as he did, his voice warbled a little, a sneaky choke in his throat. What a thing from a man so barrel-chested and robust, six feet two—two inches taller than his son, he told me—and the rolling shoulders of a youthful swimmer. A man so dignified and assured.
Jed, the look on his face seeing that.
And I realized in an instant they were much closer than I’d guessed.
That’s what marriage is, I thought. Discovering something new about your spouse every day.
Young love, pure and true, Doctor Ash said as we all raised our glasses on the swollen terrace of the restaurant. Let it last, trap it in amber. Do what you can while you can.
How Jed had swallowed hard, turning his face away.
So moved he was, I was.
When we arrived in Honolulu for our honeymoon, a message awaited us:
Now the work of love begins! Love, Dad
“When I was a kid, he still sent telegrams,” Jed said with a funny smile.
“I thought telegrams were only in movies,” I said, charmed by it. “Like ascots and bonbons.”
“Yeah, well,” Jed said, “he’s old-fashioned, I guess.”
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