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The Favorite Daughter

Review

The Favorite Daughter

What do you get when you combine a grieving mother, a distant family and the perfect home in an oceanfront gated community? If you’re author Kaira Rouda, you get the ingredients for a twisted domestic thriller. And if you’re a reader like me, you get THE FAVORITE DAUGHTER. After bursting onto the thriller scene last year with BEST DAY EVER, Rouda once again shows readers how even the most beautiful facade can hide something dark and ugly beneath the surface.

Jane Harris is the perfect wife and mother. Almost. Beautiful and slender, Jane fits in comfortably in her ritzy gated community, and her dedication to her family is just as outwardly perfect as the rest of her. True, she has no friends (they were all too jealous), and the men cannot help but hawk at her (it’s no surprise, she has always turned heads). Other than that, she and her family are perfectly normal, thank you very much.

But one year ago, the Harris family was marked by tragedy when their eldest daughter, Mary, fell off a cliff to her death. Jane and Mary might have been arguing a bit around the time of her passing, but Mary was dutiful and pure, truly Jane’s favorite daughter. Since Mary's fatal fall, Jane has been lost in a haze of grief and pills, but now, with her youngest daughter Betsy’s graduation approaching and her marriage on the rocks, she is ready to return to her family. And what better occasion than the one-year memorial of her daughter’s death?

"Presenting a mother so far removed from what we believe mothers to be is an edgy choice for Rouda --- and one that she handles remarkably well."

As Jane returns to the world of the living, so to speak, it becomes clear that her family has moved on without her. Her husband, David, is behaving strangely --- putting on cologne to go to the gym and getting home long after dinner. Betsy, a brooding, moody teenager, is also acting like she hasn’t missed her mother at all over the last year and has become quite secretive. Luckily, Jane has encrypted both David’s and Betsy’s cell phones with tracking devices that allow her to read their text messages. What? It’s just what any concerned mother would do!

With the memorial inching closer, tensions are high in the Harris family. Jane knows secrets about her husband and daughter that could set the entire evening into a tailspin, but she is also aware that she must play the perfectly grieving mother. At the same time, she cannot stop comparing her daughter and everyone else around her to Mary. Of course, Jane won’t admit to the reader (or to herself) that she had a favorite, but her obsession with Mary borders on the extreme, even with the added weight of grief. But at the end of the night, she finds a note in her purse suggesting that Betsy may know more about Mary’s death than she is letting on.

As Jane becomes more and more obsessed with getting her family back on track and figuring out what really happened the day of Mary’s death, her own careful lies start to unravel. Despite her obvious grief and hurt, readers will have to wonder why her own family is so eager to get away from her. All the while, Jane is certain that she can really have it all, as long as she remains perfect.

Early on, readers will notice a certain unreliability to Jane. In the words of a high school English teacher, she does a lot of “telling, not showing.” As the narrator, Jane tells readers constantly how others react to her --- how the men gaze, and how other parents observe her interactions with her daughter with admiration --- but Rouda brilliantly withholds the actual facts from us, so it is difficult to tell if Jane is just a narcissist or if the entire community really is taken with her. Some of her own thoughts about herself are so wildly far-fetched that they straddle the line between horrifying and laugh-out-loud funny. Readers will wonder if anyone can really think so highly of themselves all the time and believe it.

Jane is a character readers will love to hate. Rouda combines domestic suspense with a touch of dark humor for a compulsively readable book set in the mind of a textbook narcissist. THE FAVORITE DAUGHTER has a very STEPFORD WIVES feel to it but with a twist —- the mother-daughter relationship provides the perfect playground for Rouda’s delightfully wicked main character.

Presenting a mother so far removed from what we believe mothers to be is an edgy choice for Rouda --- and one that she handles remarkably well. We have seen countless thrillers featuring evil husbands and manipulative wives, but to villainize a mother requires a keen psychological understanding of the world and some flawless characterizations. Fortunately, for me and all the other favorite daughters out there, Rouda has both.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on May 24, 2019

The Favorite Daughter
by Kaira Rouda