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"First-rate...geniune chills run down the spine..."—Orlando Sentinel
"French pulls off [sexual obsession] as well as anyone in recent memory."—Chicago Tribune
I heard a soft resistant grunt and realized it was coming from me. Outside it was cold and dark. I wriggled deeper into the bunched-up duvet, closed my eyes in a squint against the dim glimmers of winter light.
Jake smelled of shaving foam. A tie hung loose from his collar. Another day. It's the little habits rather than the big decisions that make you into a real couple. You drift into routines, inhabit complementary domestic roles without deciding to. Jake and I were the world trivia experts on each other. I knew that he liked more milk in coffee than in tea, he knew that I liked just a drop of milk in tea and none at all in coffee. He could locate the hard knot that formed near my left shoulder blade after hard days in the office. I didn't put fruit in salads because of him, and he didn't put cheese in salads because of me. What more could you want from a relationship? We were shaking down into a couple.
I'd never lived with a man before-I mean, a man with whom I was in a relationship-and I found the experience of assuming household roles interesting. Jake was an engineer and was limitlessly capable with all the wires and pipes behind our walls and under our floors. I once said to him that the one thing he resented about our flat was that he hadn't actually built it himself on a greenfield site, and he didn't take it as an insult. My degree was in biochemistry, which meant that I changed the sheets on the bed and emptied the swing-bin in the kitchen. He fixed the vacuum cleaner but I used it. I washed the bath, except if he had shaved in it. I drew the line there.
The odd thing was that Jake did all the ironing. He said that people didn't know how to iron shirts anymore. I thought that was deeply stupid and I would have gotten offended except that it's hard to stay offended as you lie watching TV with a drink while somebody else does the ironing. He bought the paper and I read it over his shoulder and he got irritated. We both shopped, although I always took a list and ticked everything off, while he was haphazard and far more extravagant than me. He defrosted the fridge. I watered the plants. And he brought me a cup of tea in bed every morning.
"You're late," he said. "Here's your tea, and I'm leaving in exactly three minutes."
"I hate January," I said.
"You said that about December."
"January's like December. But without Christmas."
But he'd left the room. I showered hurriedly and put on an oatmeal-colored trouser suit, with a jacket that came to my knees. I brushed my hair and coiled it into a loose bun.
"You look smart," said Jake as I came into the kitchen. "Is that new?"
"I've had it for ages," I lied, pouring myself another cup of tea, tepid this time.
We walked to the underground together, sharing an umbrella and dodging puddles. He kissed me at the turnstile, putting the umbrella under his arm and holding my shoulders firmly.
"Goodbye, darling," he said, and I thought at that moment: He wants to be married. He wants us to be a married couple. With my mind on that arresting idea, I forgot to say anything back. He didn't notice and stepped onto the escalator, joining the descending crowd of men in raincoats. He didn't look back. It was almost as if we were married already.
I didn't want to go to the meeting. I felt almost physically incapable of it. The previous evening, I'd been out late with Jake for a meal. We hadn't gotten in until after midnight and hadn't gotten to bed until one and then hadn't actually gotten to sleep until maybe two-thirty. It had been an anniversary-our first. It wasn't much of an anniversary, but Jake and I are short of them. Occasionally we've tried, but we've always been unable to remember our first meeting. We were around each other in the same environment for such a long time, like bees hovering around the same hive. We can't remember when we became friends. We were in a fluctuating group of people, and after a bit of time we had reached a stage where if somebody had asked me to write a list of my three or four, or four or five closest friends, Jake would have been on it. But nobody ever asked me. We knew all about each other's parents, school days, love lives. Once we got horrendously drunk together when his girlfriend left him, sitting under a tree in Regent's Park and finishing off half a bottle of whiskey between us, half weepy, half giggly, generally maudlin. I told him that she was the one who was losing out, and he hiccuped and stroked my cheek. We laughed at each other's jokes, danced with each other at parties, but not when the music was slow, cadged money and lifts and advice. We were mates.
We both remembered the first time we slept together. That was on January 17 last year. A Wednesday. A group of us were going to see a late-night movie, but various people couldn't go and by the time we were at the cinema it was just Jake and me. At one point during the film we looked at each other and smiled rather sheepishly and I guessed that we were both realizing that we were on a sort of date, and maybe we were both wondering if this was such a good idea.
Afterward he asked me back to his flat for a drink. It was about one in the morning. He had a packet of smoked salmon in the fridge and-this was the bit that made me laugh-bread he had baked himself. At least, it made me laugh in retrospect, because he has never baked a loaf or anything else since. We are a takeout-and-convenience-food couple. However, I did very nearly laugh then, at the moment when I first kissed him, because it seemed odd, almost incestuous, being such good ordinary friends already. I saw his face getting closer to mine, his familiar features blurring into strangeness, and I wanted to giggle or pull away, anything to break the sudden seriousness, the different kind of quietness between us. But it immediately felt right, like coming home. If there were times when I didn't want that sense of settledness (what about all my plans to work abroad, to have adventures, to be a different kind of person?), or worried that I was nearly thirty and was this, then, my life?-well, I shook them off.
I know that couples are meant to make a specific decision to live together. It's a stage in your life, like exchanging a ring or dying. We never did. I started staying over. Jake allocated me a drawer for knickers and tights. Then there was the odd dress. I started leaving conditioner and eyeliner pencils in the bathroom. After a few weeks of that I noticed one day that about half of the videos had my handwriting on the labels. It's just that if you don't write down programs you've taped, even in very small writing, then you can never find them when you want to watch them.
One day Jake asked if there was any point in my paying rent for my room, since I was never there. I hemmed and hawed, worried, and didn't come to any firm decision. My cousin Julie came down for the summer to work before starting college, and I suggested that she could park in my place. I had to move more of my stuff out to give her room. Then, at the end of August-it was a hot early Sunday evening and we were at a pub looking over the river at St. Paul's-Julie talked and talked about looking for somewhere permanent, and I suggested she stay there permanently. So Jake and I were together and the only anniversary we had was our first sexual encounter.
But after the celebration, there was the reckoning. If you don't want to go to a meeting and you are worried about doing yourself justice or having injustice done to you, make sure that your outfit is ironed and you get there on time. These are not exactly in the managerial ten commandments, but on that dark morning when I couldn't face anything but tea, they seemed like a survival strategy. I tried to collect my thoughts on the subway. I should have prepared myself better, made some notes or something. I remained standing, in the hope that it would keep my new suit smooth. A couple of polite men offered me a seat and looked embarrassed when I refused. They probably thought it was ideological.
What were they all going to do, my fellow passengers? I bet myself silently that it wasn't as odd as what I was going to do. I was going to the office of a small division of a very large multinational drug company in order to have a meeting about a small plastic-and-copper object that looked like a New Age brooch but was in fact the unsatisfactory prototype of a new intrauterine device.
I had seen my boss, Mike, being successively baffled, furious, frustrated, and confused by our lack of progress with the Drakloop IV, Drakon Pharmaceutical Company's IUD, which was going to revolutionize intrauterine contraceptives if it ever made it out of the laboratory. I had been recruited to the project six months ago but had become gradually sucked into the bureaucratic quagmire of budget plans, marketing objectives, shortfalls, clinical trials, specifications, departmental meetings, regional meetings, meetings about meetings, and the whole impossible hierarchy of the decision-making process. I had almost forgotten that I was a scientist who had been working on a project on the fringes of female fertility. I had taken the job because the idea of creating a product and selling it had seemed like a holiday from the rest of my life.
This Thursday morning, Mike just seemed sullen, but I recognized the mood as dangerous. He was like a rusty old Second World War mine that had been washed up on a beach. It seemed harmless, but the person who prodded it in the wrong place would get blown up. It wasn't going to me, not today.
People filed into the conference room. I had already seated myself with my back to the door so that I could look out of the window. The office lay just south of the Thames in a maze of narrow streets named after spices and distant lands where they had come from. At the rear of our offices, always on the verge of being acquired and redeveloped, was a recycling facility. A rubbish dump. In one corner there was a giant mountain of bottles. On sunny days it glittered magically, but even on a horrid day like this there was a chance that I might get to see the digger come along and shovel the bottles into an even larger pile. That was more interesting that anything that was likely to happen inside Conference Room C. I looked around. There were three slightly ill at ease men who had come down from the Northbridge lab just for this meeting and evidently resented the time away. There was Philip Ingalls from upstairs, my so-called assistant, Claudia, and Mike's assistant, Fiona. There were several people missing. Mike's frown deepened, and he pulled on his earlobes furiously. I looked out of the window. Good. The digger was approaching the bottle mountain. That made me feel better.
"Is Giovanna coming?" Mike asked.
"No," said one of the researchers; Neil, I think he was called. "She asked me to stand in for her."
Mike shrugged in ominous acceptance. I sat up straighter, fixed an alert expression on my face, and picked up my pen optimistically. The meeting began with references to the previous meeting and various droning routine matters. I doodled on my pad, then tried a sketch of Neil's face, which looked rather like a bloodhound's, with sad eyes. Then I tuned out and looked at the digger, which was now well at its work. Unfortunately, the windows cut out the sound of the breaking glass, but it was satisfying all the same. With an effort I tuned back into the meeting when Mike asked about plans for February. Neil started saying something about anovulatory bleeding, and I suddenly and absurdly got irritated by the thought of a male scientist talking to a male manager about technology for the female anatomy. I took a deep breath to speak, changed my mind, and turned my attention back to the recycling center. The digger was retreating now, its job done. I wondered how you could get a job driving something like that.
"And as for you ..." I became aware of my surroundings, as if I had suddenly been disturbed from sleep. Mike had directed his attention to me, and everybody had turned to survey the imminent damage. "You've got to take this in hand, Alice. There's a malaise in this department."
Could I be bothered to argue? No.
"Yes, Mike," I said sweetly. I winked at him though, just to let him know I wasn't letting myself be bullied, and saw his face redden.
"And could someone get this fucking light fixed?" he shouted.
I looked up. There was an almost subliminal flicker from one of the fluorescent light tubes. Once you became aware of it, it was like having somebody scratch inside your brain. Scratch, scratch, scratch.
"I'll do it," I said. "I mean, I'll get someone to do it."
I was drafting a report that Mike could send to Pittsburgh at the end of the month, which left plenty of time, so I was able to spend the rest of the day doing not very much. I spent an important half hour going through two mail-order clothes catalogs I'd been sent. I turned the page back on a pair of neat ankle boots, a long velvet shirt that was described as "essential," and a short dove-gray satin skirt. It would put me ?137 further into debt. After lunch with a press officer-a nice woman whose small pale face was dominated by her narrow rectangular black-framed spectacles-I shut myself into my office and put on my headphones.
"Je suis dans la salle de bains," said a voice, too brightly, into my ear.
"Je suis dans la salle de bains," I repeated obediently.
"Je suis en haut!"
What did "en haut" mean? I couldn't remember. I couldn't even remember why I'd started learning French, except I'd had vague dreams of buying a simple white house near Nice, strolling to the market in the Mediterranean morning and discussing the ripeness of tomatoes, the freshness of fish. "Je suis en haut," I said.
The phone rang and I pulled off the headphones. I was away from the world of sunshine and fields of lavender and outdoor cafés and back in dockland in January. It was Julie, with a problem about the flat. I suggested we meet for a drink after work. She was already meeting a couple of people, so I rang Jake on his mobile and suggested he come to the Vine as well. No. He was out of town. He had gone to look at progress on a tunnel being dug through a site that was both beautiful and sacred to several religions. My day was nearly done.
Julie and Sylvie were there at a corner table with Clive when I arrived. Behind them were some wall plants. There was a vine motif in the Vine.
"You look awful," she said sympathetically. "Hangover?"
"I'm not sure," I said cautiously. "But I could do with a hangover cure anyway. I'll get you one as well."
Clive had been talking about a woman he met at a party last night.
"She's a very interesting woman," Clive said.
Excerpted from Killing Me Softly by Nicci French Copyright © 1998 by Nicci French. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted February 1, 2006
I started this book after dinner and i had it finished before midnight. It was a very quick read and I found that I couldn't put it down. Unlike other readers, I am not going to criticize the characters in the story for their lack of judgement - rather, I want to praise the author for writing such an enjoyable novel.
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Posted July 20, 2009
I felt that the beginning of the book presented itself as a love story and it is, just not your typical love story. It took me a little while to get into the story, but overall I did enjoy the book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 1, 2008
Posted September 7, 2008
Posted July 8, 2008
Posted April 25, 2007
French opened the story very well. She set up the plot quite nice. The characters in the story were very realistic and you could connect with them easily. Very Captivating. Although...it seemed like as the story went on....the characters feelings, emotions, and actions became less realistic. Connecting with any of the characters toward the end is impossible. You feel like you are watching a bad movie coming to a close...just waiting for whats going to happen...Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 4, 2003
I didn't think that this was a good book. It was really slow and I couldn't believe how Alice just let Adam take over her life. She was definitely obsessed with him and it was not in a healthy way. I found the book to be very disturbing and the ending was lacking in the suspense department. I really couldn't have cared less to what might have happened to Alice.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 11, 2000
Posted October 9, 2000
I read this book a year ago and it took three days to get half-way through it and two hours to get through the rest. As I read books for entertainment only I usually don't recall the plots in detail - this was an exception. It was so unusual that I still think about it. The last half of the book is a definite page-turner and worth the time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 9, 2000
I started the book Sunday evening, and very quickly I knew that I, too, was obsessed, and would not be able to put the book down until I had finished it. It is a novel about obsessions, and gives a horrible example on why such irrational behavior is to be avoided at all costs. There were scenes all too familiar, and I wish that everyone could be spared such horror; whether in real life or in 'fiction'. French is an excellent writer; however, I wish the story had not been so bizarre. Read it if you want to have your most private fantasies played out in an extremely uncomfortable manner to an ultimately unfulfilling conclusion. Any serial killer novel is more rewarding than this. Unfortunately, I am also obsessed sufficiently to read another of her novels.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 16, 2000
Posted June 12, 2000
Well, I have to agree with Carlin. The book lacked depth. It jumped from unimportant character to the next. Chapters and chapters of unimportant mountain climbing information lost my interest in the beginning and middle of the book. The story is also a little unrealistic. However, I will give the author props on the ending. It was the only part of the book that had a shred of thriller quality to it. From about 100 pages to the end I couldn't put the book down. The book is a quick read, but slow to get off the ground.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 23, 2000
With one glance a woman's life turns upside down as she falls for a man who thrills and posseses her - - until reality sets in. Stayed up all night reading this one.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 31, 2000
An absolute page turner. Started on a friday night, finsihed Sat. morning. A must read & she should be displayed as a high profile. I immediately went out and purchased Beneath the Skin,(First Edition: this will be a collector) another 5 star effort. I'm now searching for her previous England publications.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 25, 2000
Wow! I have read many books, but this book really did a number on me. Once I began reading, I just had to continue, I really did not want to stop for one minute. I read on the train at work, and yesterday I literally locked myself in my room until I was done. I recommend reading this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 19, 2000
In all fairness, French's intention was to write an obsessive thriller. However, the novel lacks the gripping style that readers expect.The novel jumps from character to character. Meanwhile, the author takes us a look at character that often has flashbacks while she jaunts from bed to bed with several lovers. French, with all good intentions, needs a little more work in the novel department.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 2, 2000
This has to be one of the best novels I have read. A tale about an ordinary life and how passion, love and lust can turn exciting, scary, and deadly. Its more than superb fiction, its about life. If only we can all experience a love that strong.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 8, 2000
Really enjoyed this book! The pages kept on turning, and it just kept getting better and better! shows what obsession will get you, huh? Anyway, can't wait to read another book by her!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 30, 1999
Posted December 28, 1999
This is an amazing story of obsession which could happen to anyone. Alice's life goes from ordinary to complete chaos and deceit when she falls in love with a stranger off of the street. You will not be able to put this book down!
0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.