Book Review: The Shadow of Your Smile by Mary Higgins Clark

The Shadow of Your Smile by Mary Higgins Clark
The Shadow of Your Smile by Mary Higgins Clark
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2010
Read by Jan Maxwell

The Shadow of Your Smile is the first Mary Higgins Clark novel I’ve ever read.

Of course I’ve heard of Mary Higgins Clark. Her name has been all over bestseller lists for years, and she occupies quite a lot of shelf space in public libraries and bookstores across the country. But she’s not an author I was ever interested in reading. So I wasn’t sure how I would react when I ended up listening to the audiobook of The Shadow of Your Smile on a recent road trip.

Reading other reviews of The Shadow of Your Smile, I realize this probably isn’t the best book Ms. Clark has written. Consensus appears to place this novel on the low end of quality for her output. Perhaps it’s regrettable it became my first Mary Higgins Clark novel.

Despite being sub-par, I completely understand now why Ms. Clark’s work is so popular. The story is incredibly compelling. I had to find out how this book would end. I needed to know how it would all turn out. Her tale drew me in completely.

Ms. Clark is frequently criticized for being formulaic. This criticism is certainly apt when applied to The Shadow of Your Smile. However, if fails to recognize the essential fact that her formula works very well. She’s a craftsman and she’s developed a masterful storytelling template. In the case of Ms. Clark, I wouldn’t assume that formulaic equals bad.

I found her characters relatable, likable and repugnant as the plot requires, and easy to believe. The plot relies a bit too much on coincidence but such is the nature of most suspense stories, so it wouldn’t be fair to account this as a fault. None of these coincidences are unbelievable and they all work together to keep the reader guessing.

I more or less knew from the beginning how it would turn out. You know going into it there will be a happy ending and you quickly learn what the elements of a happy ending have to be. Knowing this doesn’t detract from the suspense—you still wonder how the author is going to get there, how many complications she’s going to throw in the way. I can honestly say there’s one element of the resolution I didn’t see coming, but the surprise isn’t arbitrary and makes sense in retrospect. More surprisingly, Ms. Clark leaves some threads of the story unresolved—a bolder choice than I would expect from such a crowd-pleasing author working in such a crowd-pleasing genre.

Honestly, I didn’t expect to enjoy this book as much as I did.

Some of my enjoyment must be credited to the audiobook’s narrator, Jan Maxwell. I found her voice well suited to this style of storytelling—compelling but not overly theatrical. She gave each character an appropriate voice without allowing any of them to become caricatures. It’s a competent, satisfying performance.

The major problem with this novel—and it’s a huge problem—is the stiflingly heavy-handed exposition. There are so many plot elements, and the characters each have so much backstory, the narrative drowns in explanations and background information. Ms. Clark relies too much on character reminiscences and flashbacks to communicate this necessary material to the reader. She integrates a good chunk of exposition into character dialog. But putting quotation marks around it, making it something a character speaks aloud, doesn’t disguise the fact that there’s a whole lot of dry, boring exposition going on here. Much of it is repetitious and some of it explains things that are obvious enough not to need so much explanation.

Part of me wants to forgive Ms. Clark for handling the expository needs of story so inelegantly. Exposition is difficult and even skilled authors have a hard time wrangling it. Then again—this story is of Ms. Clark’s own devising and she only has herself to blame for crafting a tale which requires so much of it in the first place.

Even weighted down with such a freight of clunky exposition, Ms. Clark’s plot formula still shines through. It still works. She still draws you in and leaves you eager to learn the outcome of all these machinations.

If Ms. Clark can create such a compelling plot even in a not-so-good book like The Shadow of Your Smile, it makes me wonder what she can accomplish with her best stuff.

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