Title: A Perfect Night
Author: Joseph Stone
After her mother’s death in a horrible car accident, Frances Tarantino continues to feel her mother’s presence surrounding her. She sends Frances ladybugs and presents as a means of comfort, and in a horrific version of the angst that accompanies a mother-daughter relationship during adolescence, punishes her for any perceived misbehavior. All of this continues as Fran is sent to live with her aunt’s family, where long-buried family secrets soon come to a head in a terrifying turn of events.
Success within the thriller/horror genre rests, for the most part, on the author’s ability to layer tension and amplify suspense in slow degrees, such that when the book reaches its climax the readers are primed, ready, and eager for that hair-raising, spine-tingling, goosebump-inducing experience. This is exactly what Joseph Stone has done in this book, which was truly a testament to the power of careful plotting and effective pacing.
There may have been some plot devices, especially the ones that would ultimately contribute to the book’s main plot twist, that could have been introduced or alluded to a bit earlier. After all, plot twists are more satisfying if the readers can go back to the Easter eggs the author scattered along the way and say how it all makes so much more sense now. In this case, there was a sense that the big reveal was added more for shock and entertainment value, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a book that, as a whole, was very well-plotted.
The writing style was evocative and atmospheric. Joseph Stone used subtle ways of grounding readers to both place and time, for example, by using bits of pop culture references to let readers know that this story was taking place in the 1960s. Some bits of the writing were very reminiscent of the works of Stephen King, V.C. Andrews, and teen slasher giants like R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike, but they felt like an homage to the author’s influences and were subtle and sparse enough to keep the story from becoming derivative.
It is a credit to the author that most, if not all, of the characters in this book came across as distinct and vital to the development of the overall story. Fran, the main character, was the focal point of the story, and we see things from her point of view most of the time. She was an unreliable narrator, with a faulty belief system that colored how she sees the world and what goes on in it. One also gets the sense that she is the kind of character that allows things to happen to her, and there are times when we would have liked for her to be a little less helpless, but this is part of her character arc, and part of what makes her so interesting to read.
The fact that she was surrounded by a well-written, fully developed supporting cast added depths and layers that would not have been there otherwise. Two of the standout characters were Carla and Michael, brother and sister, and Fran’s cousins. Through these two characters, the main themes of violence, childhood trauma, and identity were explored. It is through their backstory that the author was able to get his point of view across to readers, and he should be commended for the deft touch with which he handled sensitive and important issues such as abuse and female sexuality.
A Perfect Night is a tightly plotted, carefully crafted story of the demons that haunt us, an allegory for the capacity for corruption that lives in every human being. The writing is simple, yet chillingly effective. With only a few words, the author was able to convey the sinister and malevolent undertones writhing just underneath the surface of a seemingly perfect, all-American family. More importantly, this is a book that celebrates strength, the ability to survive and live a life of meaning despite the horrors of your past, and everybody’s right to define that meaning. It stands as an example of the kind of books that readers should be reading right now.
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