You’re walking home one night and you see a young woman sitting on a curb, crying softly. Basic decency requires (demands, perhaps?) that you go up to her and see what’s the matter, maybe offering assistance as well. Somehow, in his new novel, Daniel Palmer creates just enough doubt with that identical scenario that you will be screaming “No! Run!” before you’re even done with the first paragraph.
How does he do this? You’ll have to read DESPERATE, Palmer’s fourth and best book to date, to get an inkling. The weeping young woman is a near-waif named Lily. In due course, she tells a Good Samaritan couple who assists her --- the happily married Gage and Anna Dekker --- about being pregnant and announcing the news to her boyfriend, who, in turn, promptly kicked her to the curb. Gage and Anna are no strangers to tragedy. They have each lost a child during their respective prior marriages and have experienced a devastating failure in their own efforts to conceive. Gage, a quality assurance director for a lithium battery designer, and Anna, a self-employed management consultant, have already begun the steps to arrange a direct adoption with a birth mother but have yet to pinpoint a likely candidate to contact them.
"Naturally, I loved every page and paragraph of DESPERATE. It is one of the most unsettling books I have read this year so far. If you like your paranoia served up hot and well done, you don’t want to miss it."
Then Lily enters their lives. She seems like the answer to their prayers, and Palmer doesn’t do anything to dissuade the reader about that. That’s true on the surface, but (and I’m not sure how he does this) you can feel the water going up incrementally from page one, just a half-degree or so every few pages. You just know that Gage and Anna are making a mistake of monster-sized proportions here. But you’re wrong, in a way. It’s a mistake, though you have no idea how huge a mistake it is when they let Lily take up residence in their home and in their lives.
This is where things get really tricky because Palmer, while building the suspense incrementally, injects just a tiny element of doubt into the reader’s own doubt. Maybe, just maybe, we are totally wrong about Lily. Why would she do all of this? And how? And just what is she doing anyway, if it’s something other than finding a good home for her baby? Maybe it’s all in Gage’s imagination. The book, after all, is narrated in Gage’s first-person voice, and, as he admits to us early on, he has an addiction to Adderall that his wife does not know about.
Accordingly, Palmer gives us an evenly paced elevator ride to the top of the first third of the book and then cuts the brake lines, after pulling the pin on a hand grenade and tossing it into the car. Once he reveals where the storyline is going and what is really happening with Lily, you won’t be able to read it fast enough to find out if the novel explodes or hits the ground first. Actually, it’s pretty much a tie. You will think that there is no way it can end well. You may be right. Palmer just can’t resist an additional 20-floor drop at the conclusion.
Naturally, I loved every page and paragraph of DESPERATE. It is one of the most unsettling books I have read this year so far. If you like your paranoia served up hot and well done, you don’t want to miss it.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 9, 2014