The Stranger by Harlan Coben

My colleague lent this to me for the weekend and I blitzed through it in less than 3 hours, not because it was so exciting that I couldn’t put it down, but because I just wanted to know what happened so I could stop reading it. Unsatisfying is the nicest word I can think of.

To help you understand why I didn’t like it, here is the blurb:

The Stranger appears out of nowhere. The identity is unknown. His motives are unclear. His information is undeniable. Then he whispers a few words in your ear and disappears, leaving you picking up the pieces of your shattered world.

Adam Price has a lot to lose: a comfortable marriage to a beautiful woman, to wonderful sons, and all the trappings of the American Dream – a big house, a good job, a seemingly perfect life.

Then he runs into the Stranger. When he learns a devastating secret about his wife, Corrine, he confronts her, and the mirage of perfection disappears. Soon Adam finds himself tangled in something far darker than even Corrine’s deception, and realises that if he doesn’t make exactly the right moves, the conspiracy he’s stumbled into will not only ruin lives – it will end them.”

That describes the entire plot of the novel for the first 287 pages; in the version that I have, there are 386 pages altogether. Adam learns that people who have asked questions about The Stranger is tortured and killed, which is what the blurb has already told me. I learned nothing new about the plot or what happens until the end which can also be summarised succinctly.

But despite this, there were too many things happening simultaneously and too many attempted cliff hangers to create suspense. Every time something dramatic or pivotal happens, the chapter ends and diverts to a different scene. It’s like watching a TV show with too many commercial breaks. I concede that the plot was fast-paced, if I am required to find one thing I liked about it.

I didn’t like the characters. I found the protagonist, Adam Price, to be bland and forgettable. I found his wife unlikeable and deceitful whose actions are difficult to justify. I didn’t understand the motives of The Stranger; his pathological need to destroy people’s lives was explained away in two paragraphs by the classic Daddy Issues (see, I can capitalise things too). His father left the family when he discovered that he was not the biological father driving The Stranger’s need to expose everyone’s secrets because honesty is the best policy and he has been Very Affected by this.

This novel also takes itself way too seriously, like it’s trying to be hard-boiled and it keeps attempting to give witty one-liners and the characters have superficial discussions about how dark and cynical the world is, and that’s what irritated me the most. There were too many references about the world not being “black-and-white” and that everything is “grey” and that everyone is “naïve” for thinking otherwise and quite frankly, too many snide comments about suburbia, like reading about a middle-aged middle-class white male discovering his whole life was a lie is a new concept.

I was also forced to read paragraphs like this:

Thomas had hated the whole idea of Santa Claus anyway. What was the point? Why do you tell kids that some weird fat guy who lives at the North Pole watches them all the time? Sorry that’s just creepy.

And this ridiculous quote from the antagonist:

“It is always us against them. That’s what all of life is. We fight wars for that reason. We make decisions every day to protect our own loved ones, even if it means hardships for others. You buy your boy a new pair of cleats for lacrosse. Maybe you could have used that money to save a starving child in Africa. But no, you let that child starve. Us against them. We all do this.”

The plot would have been easier to swallow had Coben just accepted that his novel was an easy read about unlikely events but I feel he’s trying too hard to be tough and keeps trying (emphasis on “trying”) to impart his hard truths about life.

Due to my incredible need to know what happened (the diplomatic word for this is ‘curious’ but the correct term is ‘nosy’), I had to finish the novel. I would not recommend it, unless you want to kill an afternoon but there are better books for that.

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