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Cass and Ryan Connor have achieved family nirvana. With three kids between them, a cat and a yard, a home they built and feathered, they seem to have the Modern Family dream. Their family, including Cass' two children from previous relationships, has recently moved to Portland a new start for their new lives. Cass and Ryan have stable, successful careers, and they are happy. But trouble begins almost imperceptibly. First with small omissions and white lies that happen daily in any marital bedroom. They seem insignificant, but they are quickly followed by a series of denials and feints that mushroom and then cyclone in menace.
With life-or-death stakes and irreversible consequences, Poison is a chilling and irresistible reminder that the closest bond designed to protect and provide for each other and for children can change in a minute.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)|
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It's Thursday night, just after six, and Cass does the things of a mother. She decapitates a head of broccoli and drops it into a pot of boiling water. She opens the lid on a vat of rice and nearly burns her face off. She kneels to check the chicken, sweating in the oven. She hacks an onion with a knife, achieving, in three swift blows, a painless execution. She balances a call for work with the needs of her toddler, who is feet away on the floor, demolishing a wooden tower. She mutes the phone and calls upstairs to the older kids to please come down for dinner. She unmutes the phone just in time to utter something useful. The kids tumble down the stairs, enmeshed in their own struggle. The sitter, at six on the dot, abandons her post at the tower and makes her evening exit, the speed and precision of which sometimes feels to Cass like a jailbreak.
Despite the initial shudder of knowing that she is outnumbered, Cass softens when the sitter leaves, relieved by the privacy and power of being alone with her children. She could do anything with these kids, teach them any new concept, any new religion. She could tell them blue is green, that gender is a construct, that God does not exist, that God is perfect. It's a dizzying amount of power. There is no one to check or balance this power — only the mother and the father. In any other situation — work, government, or religion — this would be a recipe for disaster. For Cass, it is a sacred gift, a vocation and an honor, the chance to start and end her day with her three most important people, three human beings who share her big trusting eyes and the rest of her genetic makeup.
The hours between six and nine include several obligations: dinner, homework, piano practice, bathing, brushing teeth, bedtime book, just ten more minutes of LEGOs, please, pile in for a snuggle. This time is often chaotic. But it is routine, and routine offers its own meditation. It is regimen and ritual. Cass lives for this time, and it lives by her supervision. She texts her husband before sitting down to dinner.
"Home soon? Kids are hungry." She leaves the phone on the counter, deposits the baby in the high chair, and begins her nightly sermon. "All right, people."
The kids take their seats. Cass dismembers the chicken.
"I want to wait for Ryan," says Pete.
"Not tonight. It's getting late."
"I'm not eating until he gets here."
"Then I guess you're not eating."
The standoff between mother and son ends in the usual fashion, with a heartfelt attempt at mutiny followed by a decisive maternal triumph, along with a tacit relief in the imperviousness of the ruling power dynamic. As the kids begin to eat, Cass breathes more slowly. She is like a mother cat, purring when her children are close — double that when they are eating a healthy dinner. She cuts and mashes chicken for the baby while Pete covertly transfers his portion to his sister. Cass takes a bite of her own and pretends not to notice.
A noxious buzz interrupts the quiet. Cass starts — as though it is not just the sound of her phone but rather she and her husband are wired for instant communication. She makes a show of disinterest and then, as the kids consider the meal, she stands and crosses the room to read her husband's message.
"Stuck at work."
She puts the phone down. The news is not uncommon. Ryan's workload as an architect is cyclical, and his schedule can sometimes resemble a bear going in and out of hibernation. But the frequency of late nights over the last few months has been a source of minor frustration. She makes a conscious effort to unfurrow her brow and sits down with the children.
Cass looks different from how she expected to look at forty, her body further along in its natural expiration. She is a woman who has already seen most of life's great highlights: a childhood with plenty of laughter and toys, summer nights in cars with sunburned boys, all-nighters in a college dorm lined with books and posters, a flurry of years rushing around in tall heels and short dresses, childbirth, three times, every one a revelation, a pink and wailing infant, eyes, chest expanding, the first precious moments of motherhood, when life reveals its purpose, and all the stages of undress in between from all dressed up to naked.
She has spent nights hunched over library tables, always the hungry student, hours scribbling to meet deadlines in a newspaper office, chipping away at the keyboard and ceiling, weeks sprinting down city sidewalks, chasing news and stories and then, years later, on these same streets, chasing after her children. She has slowed her pace to a waddle as her belly and ankles widened, and years, standing at playground swings, pushing her babies into midair and launching them in their childhoods. At forty, she has lain naked in the arms of at least ten men she thought she loved for a moment, fallen in love with three of these men, married two, and buried her first husband. She has lain on the floor of her kitchen, weeping, begging for respite from each passing minute, slept in rocking chairs next to a crib, nursing each child to sleep, to grow, so content as not to notice as these nights became a decade. She has kneeled at the grave of the husband she mourned and at the altar of the one who came after.
At forty, she is more beautiful than she imagined and more exhausted than she cares to acknowledge. Her eyes have tiny tributaries at the outside corners, laugh lines that she knows result, in fact, from both tears and laughter. She is tall and lean from years of running, miles docked burning baby weight and tamping back the sparks of worry. Her hair is blondish by design, with an ashy, silver timbre, and this, combined with her light eyes, makes Cass look certain even when she is worried. She is stately, if slightly spent, wise, if slightly wizened, exceptionally sexy or elegant depending on the makeup. She has the light eyes of an optimist, eyes that see human nature at its best, if not at its truest. Her smile bears the permanent twist of a woman who has heard more stories than most and lived even more. She has the curves that kindness gives a face, and the angles wrought by hardship. She is lithe but has the heft of a woman who has had and held unfathomable sadness.
Time has passed. The kids are settled. Alice stares down her homework upstairs, writing and rewriting the topic sentence of a paragraph. Her teacher's question: What is the relationship of Huck Finn and Jim? Fraught, Cass explains. As close as lovers, and as doomed as any other rivals. Pete faces off with "Für Elise," teetering through the first phrases. From the baby's room emerge the sounds of a child in the last stage before slumber: the rustle of blankets, a request for water, followed by the hush of slower breaths. The Connor kids wind their way through their evening vesper.
A floor below, the rush of air, barely louder than a whisper. The kids, attuned to this sound, leap from their spots and race to the front door to greet their stepfather, Ryan.
Cass attempts the near-impossible feat of demanding quiet without raising her volume. She follows the kids down the stairs, reaching them just as Ryan greets his waiting fan club. When he enters, he stands still and braces himself for their momentum. The kids stop at his feet, pausing just long enough to let him take off his jacket, and then they follow him, a celebrity and his entourage, as he makes his way to the kitchen.
"Baby sleeping?" Ryan asks. He deposits a kiss on Cass's cheek.
The baby calls out. Cass sighs. Sleep has been disrupted. It will take double the time to begin the cycle from its onset.
The balance Cass works to achieve is often toppled in this fashion, calm traded for a new energy, the Ryan vibration, but she doesn't really mind. In fact, she has come to believe it is best for her children. A measure of chaos, she tells herself, has its place next to order. Ryan is her antidote, and she is his better judgment. Their roles are at times so distinct, their functions so opposite in the household that she has come to feel that all families would benefit from this division of labor. She knows she lacks an ingredient in herself, like bread without enough yeast, and that her kids might end up flat were she to raise them without it.
Still, it is not without some effort that Cass makes the transition between the night's hard-earned quiet and Ryan's easy disruption.
"Ryan," she says.
"Hi, sweetheart." His eyes are tired.
"Long day?" she says. She replaces his jacket as it slips from the hook behind them.
"You say that as though it's over."
"New proposal. I thought we were gonna check work at the door." He smiles, diluting the comment.
"We did say that." She studies him, tests his facial expressions, replays his last statement. Something's off — a smell, a glance, eyes too quickly averted.
"Chicken's still warm," she says. "Rice is on the counter."
"Perfect," he says and kisses her again. "You are."
They do this a lot, this sweet routine as a kind of penance, a way of acknowledging the goodness of life, the battles they have weathered — alone and together. They have reached the goals they set for themselves, and so they observe this simple rite, the return of the father to the home, the reunion of husband and wife with the same earnest gratitude of reformed sinners.
Cass turns and walks up the stairs to collect the now-crying baby. The rumble of feet as Alice and Pete follow Ryan to the table.
"Homework finished?" Ryan asks.
"Yup," says Pete.
"Completed," says Alice.
He picks up the lifeless broccoli. "Vegetable consumption?"
"Excessive," says Alice.
An expectant grin and a perfect pause from Ryan. "Then I guess you deserve ice cream!"
Before Cass clears the top step, before she has scooped up the baby, a cry of delight is followed by a rumble of muffled laughter, then the patter of feet crossing the floor, the rustle of coats being tugged off hooks, jackets pulled over pajamas, then the door and the rush of night as Alice and Pete follow Ryan out the door like rats after the Pied Piper.
"Ryan, it's a school night," she calls out.
But now the house is silent, except for the sound of the closing door and the victorious giggles of Ryan and the kids as they gallop toward the empty playground on the corner.
Cass gathers the baby now, listens to the silence. So what if Ryan sometimes stands in the way of a good night's sleep? Grief had made her dull. Grief had made her boring. Her husband of a decade died seven years prior after fighting an aggressive case of Hodgkin's lymphoma. What her kids need more than anything now is to feel lighthearted. And that is exactly how they seem when Cass finds them in the playground, hands sticky with ice cream, eyes bright with excitement. The school is a quarter mile from the house at the top of the hill they live on, and its playground is a second backyard for the Connors. Its convenience is sweetened by the freezer full of sweets at the adjacent market. Ryan and Pete stand in the dark, racing remote-control helicopters. Alice watches from a bench, calling the winner. The pavement is shiny as the bay, an endless black horizon. Neon lights dart overhead, Portland's version of comets.
Cass sits down next to her daughter. Alice abandons her duties to feed the baby ice cream. She unwinds his scarf and unzips a garment that looks like something between a sleeping bag and jacket. At two years old, Sam is small and round, the size of a large puppy. He has his mother's eyes and his father's temperament, and so, despite his sweet plump face, he has a formidable presence. As the baby of the family, he is everybody's darling, benefiting from the apprenticeship of his older sibs and the constant flow of attention. He enjoys his ice cream almost as much as the undivided focus of his sister.
Ryan is deep in planning mode, describing a new adventure.
"I have to go away next week."
"What for?" says Pete.
"Maybe you can skip school and come."
"Ryan, don't taunt him," says Cass.
"I'm not. I'm totally serious." Ryan swerves his hand to the right.
Pete takes his eye off his helicopter, and it crashes. And he's down. That's all it takes with Pete to ignite an obsession — one endorsement from Ryan, the promise of adventure. He becomes Ryan's unwitting lobbyist, missionary, and disciple, badgering his mother until that belief takes on the force of revolution.
"One day I'll take you diving," says Ryan. "I'll show you the Great Barrier Reef. The biggest structure in the world made by living creatures. Coral. The best architects on earth. It's so big you can see it from outer space. We gotta go soon before it's all gone. Swallowed by global warming. Alice, you in?" he continues.
"No, thanks," she says. "I prefer to stay where I'm less likely to be devoured."
Alice takes another lick of ice cream. She is at that special age where magic and logic hold equal weight — and neither wields as much power as vanilla with rainbow sprinkles. She is young enough to be vulnerable to charm but smart enough to recognize manipulation. Reward, punishment, ultimatum, deprivation — these are, of course, the same tacks she uses on her brother. But at ten, she is still at the mercy of the best incentive, the call of the unknown, the pull of adventure.
"Suit yourself," says Ryan.
Alice feigns indifference.
Cass instinctively tenses. The last time she heard him say, "Suit yourself," she came home to find Alice and Pete covered in paint, assisting Ryan as he "painted the house," the living room walls splattered like a Jackson Pollock canvas.
"Guess we'll just go on our own." Sometimes the plans Ryan makes are met with some resistance. But he knows how to double defense into a new offense. There is an electric quality to Ryan's attention and a penalty for dissenters, the ability to shine light into a room and cause the world to feel as though it has suffered a blackout in his absence.
Alice frowns. Even if the prize had no pull before, its withdrawal has given it value.
Cass begins to collect their trash, pack up scarves and mittens.
"We'll pick this up tomorrow," says Ryan.
"When?" asks Pete, his face falling.
"Don't worry, man. We got plenty of time."
"But you're leaving Monday."
"I'll only be gone for a week," he says. "And then you're stuck with me. Forever."
Cass watches closely now as Ryan leads Pete further. She allows it because she feels it is necessary for Pete to learn how to razz and be razzed, to spar and be sparred with, that relaxation, recreation, and play is as essential for a child as a well-balanced diet. And mostly because she knows Ryan will make good on his promise. Given the choice between a promise-breaker and a promise-keeper, she will take the latter. A few hours of sleep is a small price to pay for her son's second chance at a father.
"Can we, Mom?"
Ryan shrugs. He knows he's won now.
"You can't go on this trip," she says, "but we can start planning our holiday vacation. We're due to go back to the Dunmore. I've been craving those milk shakes."
"Hooray!" cries Pete. He jumps up and down. Even Alice is smiling.
Cass concedes defeat once again, but now with open delight. After years of grief, the trade of her will for her children's joy is one she is willing to make.
Cass walks to her husband's side, awards him with an adoring smile, the smile of a co-conspirator, a trusted ally. She grasps his hand and imparts, in a grasp, all her love, her thanks, her adoration. He doubles the force of her grasp, as if raising her love in a bet, then tugs her gently toward their home, leading the family they have made, the family they have formed together. It is a perfect moment, its contentment sweetened by the tears that came before it.
Travel plans gain fervor now in the empty school yard as descriptions of pink coral give way to a discussion of diving gear and the current color — blue or purple — of ink on stamps on passports. But now Ryan is ready to release the reins to his partner. Cass commands the group and begins the trip back home, anxious to resume the bedtime ritual, this time aided by hard-earned fatigue and fulfillable dreams of pirates and mermaids.
It is nearly eleven, and Cass and Ryan lie in bed, unwinding. In a faded blue T-shirt and cotton briefs, Ryan looks somehow too carnal for a marital bedroom. Cass wears a short silk nightgown and a gray cardigan sweater, the glasses she wore in college. She reads while he scans his device. Domestic bliss, the modern version. A breath of air rushes in the window. Cass burrows deeper under the covers.
"More travel again so soon." She is going for disinterest. "Which project is this?"
"The new one I told you about. Second home. Usual bullshit. 'Hidden Harbor,' Jamaica."
She flips the page in her novel. "Sounds exotic."
He turns to her suddenly. "Why don't you come? Just us? A quick vacation?"
"You know I can't miss class," she says. "I teach every day but Monday."
Excerpted from "Poison"
Copyright © 2017 Galt Niederhoffer.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Cass is married to Ryan. They have three children - two from her previous marriage and one with Ryan. Cass thought Ryan was her knight in shining armor. But soon after the baby is born, strange little things start to happen to Cass. She begins to think Ryan is trying to poison her. To save herself and her children, she must figure out exactly what is going on. Will she live long enough to discover the truth? I must admit to having a love hate relationship with Cass. One minute I'm thinking - you go girl! And the next I'm thinking - are you stupid? I will give her credit for her perseverance. She is not going to give up until she determines what Ryan is doing to her and why. I did enjoy the suspense. I thought the story occasionally lagged a little. It was intriguing enough for me to want to finish and I'm glad I stayed with it. The last half of the book is when it became a real page turner! I received this from St. Martin's Press via Netgalley.
Galt Niederhoffer delivers a roller coaster ride of deceit, betrayal and so much more in his latest novel, Poison. Cass and Ryan Connor have it all: three kids, a cat, and a yard in the beautiful seaside community of Cumberland, Maine; just outside of Portland. Life is cozy and complete. Recent transplants from the bump and grind of the city, they buy the ultimate Victorian ‘fixer-upper,’ enroll their kids in excellent schools and off to work they go each day to their equally satisfying jobs. Nothing could possibly go wrong in their familial utopia...until it does. Of course, sacrifices had to be made. Ryan landed the dream job in the architectural firm which Cass knew would mean long nights and a lot of hard work and devotion on Ryan’s part. However, when long nights became the norm and Cass was increasingly becoming a single mom with her absentee husband, she began to question just what so many ‘long nights’ actually entailed. It started with the persistent buzzing of texts coming from her phone. As much as Cass tried to ignore the sound, she would succumb to what she already knew: ‘stuck at work’ ...again. No worries. Three kids later and nearing forty, Cass could still rock a party dress and hang with men half her age. Ryan was her second chance at happiness after her first husband died. Ryan was the one to court this single mom with two children only to sweep her off her feet into happily ever after. He was relentless in his pursuit. Cass knows he’s the one when he accepts her children Pete and Alice as though they were his own and finds herself saying ‘I do’ once again. Time marches on. The family bonds. Cass and Ryan welcome their new bundle of joy they created together, and the Connor household travels further down the road of bliss. Fast forward and late nights multiply to most every night, complemented by out-of-town trips on a more regular basis. These circumstances are compounded by health issues that hit Cass like a freight train overnight. Suddenly, there’s more to this shift in what was once the storybook life. What is Ryan up to and why does Cass feel like she is witnessing the implosion of her life from afar? Galt Niederhoffer’s crafting of this story is like building a precise masterpiece out of LEGOs one delicious scene after another. The twists and turns he strategically plants throughout this read are superb. He is a slave to his audience in that he listens to their demands and acquiesces by spinning a fantastic plot of mystery, betrayal, deceit and the age-old question of why. He goads his audience with the challenge of figuring out the moment when love turns to betrayal. All the while, he supports the wonder by planting seeds of doubt as the plot thickens. Is character Ryan justified in doing what he does? What about character Cass? Is she the victim (or were the signs all there and she chose to ignore them)? Niederhoffer has a wonderful command of his pen in this story. He taunts his reader with just enough to lead them to the very edge of the cliff before he pulls them back in the next scene. I thoroughly enjoyed the masterful writing throughout. There is not one moment of drag in this read and I welcome the opportunity to read Mr. Niederhoffer’s next book. Well done! Quill aays: Poison is the quintessential example of presenting the question: ‘Do we ever really know everything about the one we love… and when it comes down to it, would we want to’?
Definitely a page turner, couldn't put it down.
2.75 Stars I am not sure if the main characters names changed before or after I received this ARC, but in the version I read, Cass and Ryan Connor were the names of the main characters. This book wasn’t initially on my radar, but I picked it up after it was recommended to me. While I really enjoyed the overarching plotline, the writing was too descriptive and there was not enough dialog. Additionally the plot was a little cumbersome and there were just too many gaps and loose ends for me to fully engage. Additionally, many times I found myself skim reading over the overly descriptive writing, which is something I really hate doing. I felt more compelled to hurry up and finish it just so I could get on to the next book. Without giving away any spoilers, here are the reasons why this book just didn’t do it for me. The first is “why”. I understand that Ryan starts to lie and change, but there wasn’t any lead up to why the flip of the switch. There was so much description on Cass & Ryan’s love affair, how they fell in love, their insatiable appetite for intimacy, etc.… but there wasn’t anything that was the catalyst for the breakdown of their marriage. I felt that we needed to see more of Ryan’s transformation from loving and doting to the slow progression of abuser. We are also told that Cass’s mother doesn’t like Ryan, but we are never really told why. Some history between Ryan and Cass’s family would have helped with the transition. Then there are the gaps of both Marley and Aaron, especially Marley. I really never understood her role and there wasn’t any closure on her arc. I felt that the author could have spent more time closing that loop and providing resolution on Marley. Additionally, I feel that Aaron just randomly got thrown into the story and became a very convenient character. I wish that there would have been more build up to him. Finally, whether the author intended this or not, I never really felt that Cass was unreliable. I believed her the entire time and I am not sure if we are supposed to or not. Most times it is obvious when we (the reader) are supposed to question our protagonist or not. I will, however, give extra bonus points to Niederhoffer for not making Cass an alcoholic. Amen and all that jazz for bucking the formula on that. Overall, I liked the premise of Poison, but feel that it really needs some massive editing and rewrites. There is a lot of potential, but there are just too many loose ends and not enough build up. I wish I could have given this book a better rating, but I read so many books in this genre that this one just did not stack up.
I did not want to put this book down. Even though the plot was pretty direct, it did have a lot of excitement that pulled me through the story. It is very believable and I enjoyed the explanations of the poisons so that I would have a better understanding how she was being manipulated. It also pointed out a key problem with the justice system and how the woman, even if they are the victim, has the burden of proof and is seen as dissevering of their abuse. Several times I found myself confused about the timeline. I would have really like to have had dates attached to each chapter. Sometimes I thought several days had passed when it was actually the same day. The book also ended abruptly. I would have liked a little more of an explanation. I would still highly recommend this book. It was a quick and easy read that is very well written.
Poison is one of those books that makes you wonder how well you know your partner. It also makes you wonder how secure you are in your relationship. After I finished reading it, I had to sit and process it. I got chills from reading it. I have no issue imagining that there are scenarios like this are playing out across the country. I felt awful for Cass. She uprooted her life for Ryan. She followed him to Seattle with her two children from a previous marriage. They put down roots, had a son and seemed like the all American family. Then little things started happening that made her start questioning her relationship with Ryan. Things escalated to the point where Cass began to think that Ryan was cheating on her. Then she started to get sick and she started to get suspicious. After an ER visit that ended up with Cass in the psych ward, she leaves Ryan. It is then that things go from bad to worse. Cass is in danger of not only of being killed but she is also in danger of losing those that she loves the most. Ryan was such an awful man. I was surprised that he wasn’t caught sooner. But seeing how slick he was, I could see why people didn’t believe it when Cass was telling them what he was doing. The only people the believed her was her lawyer and Nora, her friend. What shocked me, and that is pretty hard to do, is why he did it. I had a feeling who C. Alloy was but boy, was I wrong. Who C. Alloy has blown my brains because it is the last person I would have suspected it to be. The end of the book did kind of surprise me if it felt a little rushed. Everything from Bermuda on kept me on my toes. I have never read a book by Galt Niederhoffer and I do plan on reading more!! My Summary of Poison: 3 stars While I liked Poison, I felt that the beginning was slow and the end was very rushed. But everything else in between was pure gold. I thought the plotline was great and the characters were great. **I chose to leave this review after reading an advance reader copy**
Another “perfect” family on the outside story. Ryan and Cass seem to be the perfect family. Cass has two children from her late first husband. Then she marries Ryan and they have a child together. All seems perfect on the outside but little signs convinces Cass that her husband is having an affair. When she confronts him he becomes the epitome of the abusive husband – denial, anger, blame shifting, threats. The writing style put me off a bit. The first couple of chapters I immediately envisioned the beginning of a Twilight Zone episode with a narrator looking on the family and setting the stage for us. But as I warmed up to it I found myself inpatient with the daily routines that pulled me away from the book. Ryan becomes physically abusive – wrapping his fingers around her neck until she thinks she will die, forcefully raping her. Then one day he sneers to her that he is going to kill her. Soon Cass begins having violent stomach cramps and she feels as though her body is short-circuiting. She comes to the conclusion that her husband is poisoning her. She tries to get help but has no proof of any crime being committed. Now it becomes a game of cat-and-mouse. Who can Cass trust? Are her children safe? What would happen next? It was difficult reading of Cass’ response to Ryan’s cheating and abuse. At first she let herself believe his lies. She always took him back when he turned on the charm. She had been an investigative reporter and was now a college professor. I expected her to not fall for his tricks. But accepting how you could be so wrong about someone is hard to accept. Only when she realized that her children were in danger did she put aside her emotions and once again became the investigative reporter. Her story is one that many women have faced. The victim becomes the guilty one. What did she do to provoke him? Was she seeking revenge for his betrayal? It was a good thing the story was very good, as the writing definitely could have been better. Also some aspects of the story just did not seem realistic – they were too forced. But I do feel it was the time reading it for entertainment value.
One of the worst books I have ever read. Waste of time and money.