The Perfect Mother

The Perfect Mother

by Nina Darnton


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"In this fictionalized account of the Amanda Knox case, journalist Darnton asks the question any parent would dread: Is my child capable of murder?... A fast-paced thriller with the kind of emotional impact that transcends a simple whodunit."—Kirkus Reviews

When an American exchange student is accused of murder, her mother will stop at nothing to save her.

A midnight phone call shatters Jennifer Lewis’s carefully orchestrated life. Her daughter, Emma, who’s studying abroad in Spain, has been arrested after the brutal murder of another student. Jennifer rushes to her side, certain the arrest is a terrible mistake and determined to do whatever is necessary to bring Emma home. But as she begins to investigate the crime, she starts to wonder whether she ever really knew her daughter. The police charge Emma, and the press leaps on the story, exaggerating every sordid detail. One by one, Emma’s defense team, her father, and finally even Jennifer begin to have doubts. 

A novel of harrowing emotional suspense, The Perfect Mother probes the dark side of parenthood and the complicated bond between mothers and daughters.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780142196731
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/25/2014
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 5.30(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Nina Darnton is the author of An African Affair. She lives with her husband in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2014 Nina Darnton


It was midnight and, lying next to her husband in their Philadelphia home, Jennifer Lewis was fast asleep. It had been a good day. Lily, their sixteen-year-old, had just found out she had made both the soccer team and the honor roll. Eight-year-old Eric was fast asleep after a day at the circus. And Emma, their twenty-year-old college girl, was having the time of her life in Spain for her junior year abroad. Life seemed so perfect that when the phone rang, Jennifer didn’t even have the usual flare of panic engendered by an unexpected middle-of-the-night interruption. Her husband, Mark, woke first.

“Get it, will you, honey?” he mumbled, still half-asleep.

She reached over to pick up the phone.


It was Emma’s voice, shaken and vulnerable, through torrents of tears.

“Mom,” she sobbed. “You told me not to do anything stupid, and I did.”

Now Jennifer was wide-awake and very anxious. She was aware of a lot of background noise, a jumble of voices, some shouting.

“That’s okay, sweetheart,” she said, controlling her voice. “Tell me what happened.

“I went to a bar. I drank too much. I felt funny. There was cake and stuff. I think the brownies were laced with hash.”

“What happened, Emma?”

“Someone was killed, Mama.”

“Someone you knew?” She was horrified.

“They think I did it. They think I killed him. Tell Daddy. I need a lawyer. Please come.”

“Why do they think you did it? Where are you?”

“I’m at the police station, Mom. I can’t talk. Please just come.”

There was another sound of people yelling, and then the call was cut off.

At first, Jennifer was so stunned she didn’t even put down the telephone receiver.

Mark had turned on the light and was sitting up next to her. “Jennifer,” he prodded. “Honey, what happened?”

She slowly hung up the phone and turned to him. Her voice was shaky, confused. “I don’t understand what happened.”

“Tell me what she said.”

She repeated the conversation, and as she spoke, her confusion turned to panic. She reached for his hand and held it tight. “We have to go there right away, Mark. I’ll check the plane schedules. Can you find a lawyer? I mean, not a corporate lawyer like you—a criminal lawyer and the best one in Spain. Can you do that?”

She left the bed before he could answer and headed for the bathroom. She tore through the crammed shelves of her medicine cabinet, wildly displacing bottles of aspirin and Advil and sweeping aside soaps and makeup until she found what she was looking for: a small bottle of Valium that had been prescribed more than a year ago for a back spasm—she hoped taking one would calm her down. Mark followed her and put his arm around her.

“Shh, honey. Hold on. She’ll be okay. We’ll take care of this. Please, Jen, you have to be calm if you’re going to help her.”

She turned to him and buried her head in his chest, fighting back tears. “We watched Midnight Express the night before she left. Remember? She just watched it to humor me, but I was trying to warn her about how dangerous it is to take drugs in a foreign country. But she said the brownies at some party were laced with hash. That’s not her fault. They’re accusing her of murder, for God’s sake. It’s totally crazy.”

She wrapped her arms around him as he stroked her hair.

“I know it is, and that’s why it’s going to go away. And she’s in Spain, not Turkey thirty-five years ago. This is Europe, not the third world. I’ll line up a lawyer and find out what we need to do. And whatever it is, Jen, anything at all, we’ll do it. But she needs you right away. There’s probably a plane tonight. You’ll have to fly to Madrid and then catch another plane to Seville. I’ll join you as soon as I can.”

“No, Mark—she needs us both. And I need you too. You have to come with me.”

“I can’t, honey. We have to make arrangements for Lily and Eric,” he said.

“I’ll call my parents.”

“They have to get here. It all takes time. And I’m in the middle of a case. I have to work some things out at the office before I can leave.”

He saw her frown and knew she was about to object. “We’re going to need a lot of money for this, Jen,” he said quickly. “We have to make some hard decisions. You go first. You’ll get her out on bail right away. You can start talking to the lawyer and find out what our next step is. I’ll come next weekend.”

She nodded, accepting his logic. She knew she had a lot to do before she got on the plane, but she didn’t seem able to get started. Not yet.

“She sounded so frightened, Mark,” she said in a small voice.

“Of course she did,” he answered. “She must be scared out of her mind. That’s why we have to hurry up and get her out.”

“She can’t even really speak Spanish that well; she must seem like some rich, spoiled American to them. God knows what they’ll do to her.” She popped the Valium into her mouth and swallowed it with a gulp of water.

“I just don’t understand how a mistake this big could happen. There must be something we can do even before I get there. Can’t we call the State Department? Don’t you have some friends in Washington?”

“I’m going to work on all of that, honey. Don’t worry. You just get packed and get ready to go.”

“What should we tell everyone?” she asked.

“Maybe we should tell them the truth. It’s insane, but we’re going over to straighten it out.”

“Are you serious? We can’t tell them our daughter has been accused of murder. We can’t tell our kids that. We can’t tell my parents that.”

He sighed. “Okay, okay. You’re right. We’ll have to think of something.”

She tried to organize her thoughts. She had to get the kids up for school in a few more hours and tell them some fiction as to why she was rushing off to Spain that night. She had to call her parents and get them to come and stay, using the same fiction. She had to examine the plane schedule, buy her ticket, figure out how to get to Seville from Madrid, and cancel everything she had planned for the next few weeks. And she had to pack. She dragged her traveling bag out of the closet and opened it, throwing some underwear, socks, panty hose, and her makeup kit inside. Then she paused, looked hard at the clothes hanging in her closet, and burst into tears. Just exactly what do you wear when your daughter has been accused of murder and you are bailing her out of jail?

She dried her eyes with the back of her hand. She threw pants, shirts, and a few dresses on the bed and took stock. A former actress who had picked up extra money in her college years as a model, Jennifer understood dressing for a part. She knew she would need to go to the jail, and if they couldn’t get the case dismissed, she might even have to appear next to her daughter in court. She was also aware that she was a very attractive woman, a quality she had found helpful throughout her life. She took pride in her striking blue eyes and thick, lustrous brown hair and spent three mornings a week at the gym to maintain her toned, elegant body, still firm and youthful although she had celebrated her forty-sixth birthday a month earlier. She calculated that the dress code in Spain would be more formal than it was in the States. She needed something conservative and respectable—and so did Emma, she reasoned, but she could pick that up when she got there. At the last minute, she also threw in her favorite dress, a simple sleeveless black sheath that showed off her slim figure and long legs. Concentrating on her wardrobe occupied her mind as the Valium kicked in, so she began to feel a little calmer. She would tell everyone that Emma had suffered a minor injury in a car accident and she was going to make sure she got the proper treatment. Luckily Eric and Lily adored their grandparents and would be thrilled they were coming to stay.

Her mind drifted back to Emma’s plight. Oh, dear God, don’t let this scar her. Jennifer had spent all the years of her children’s lives protecting them from potential wounds, consciously building positive self-images, and working tirelessly on their creative and intellectual development. She’d hung mobiles of the planets moving around the sun, covered the walls and ceiling with star stickers that twinkled in the dark, lain in bed with them telling them stories or reading books until they fell asleep. She’d ferried them to lessons and playdates and children’s museums. As they grew older, she’d helped them with term papers and, with Mark, who joined her whenever he could, attended all their soccer games, concerts, and theater productions.

The girls treated her as their confidante, told her everything, and although of course she knew they weren’t perfect, she trusted them implicitly. They worked hard, made honors grades each year, were active in school organizations and lauded by their teachers. She’d hear about friends whose kids took drugs or got involved with a bad crowd, or were rebellious and hateful to their parents, and she would discuss each case with her daughters. She never said so, not even to Mark, but she couldn’t help believing that the secret of their apparent success was simply that she had been a stay-at-home mom who was always there for them, alert to potential minefields and keeping lines of communication open. She was proud of them and proud of herself.

Her eyes were growing heavy, and although she was sure she couldn’t sleep, she thought she might lie down and close her eyes for a few minutes. She awoke with a start when her alarm went off at 6:30, time to wake Eric and Lily. Lily, she discovered, was already up and in the shower, but Eric was sprawled on his back on top of his covers, Spider-Man staring up at her from his pajamas. She bent down to kiss him awake. He reached up his arms to hug her and she snuggled into him, inhaling the sweet scent of the shampoo he’d used last night. She made pancakes, and as they all ate breakfast, she calmly told them that Emma had been in a minor car accident and broken her leg and she needed to go to Spain to sort things out. Her cover story seemed to work. Neither the kids, nor her parents when she reached them, suspected anything terrible had happened. All that expensive acting training and hard-won experience had served some practical purpose in her life after all, she thought.

She made herself a cup of coffee and went into Mark’s study to see what progress he had made. The time difference—it was six hours later in Spain—had worked in their favor, and he had already made her plane reservations, located the best criminal lawyer in Spain, and arranged for the lawyer to travel from his home in Madrid to Seville to meet Jennifer when she arrived the next afternoon. It was too early to reach any of Mark’s contacts in the State Department, but he assured her he would at the start of business hours.

She stepped into the shower. For some reason she began to think about her pregnancy with Emma. It was to be her first child, and she had worried about the problems people discussed in those days: the specter of postpartum blues or not bonding with the baby. And then there were the big decisions: day care or nanny, full-time motherhood or continuing her promising acting career. She was also afraid of the pain of childbirth, which she had nonetheless insisted on doing naturally, without an epidural or any medication. And she did feel pain. She remembered squeezing Mark’s hand as she pushed and pushed and finally gasping, “Give me some gas,” and hearing the doctor say, “Too late,” as, with what felt like an explosion, Emma burst into the world. But her concerns disappeared as soon as the nurse placed her baby in her arms. She had looked at her, counted her fingers and toes, marveled at the miracle of perfection she had produced, felt that surge of fierce love and protectiveness, that rush of hormones, that tie of blood and pain, and she knew she would never leave this child. It took a little time for it to play out, but really that was the moment her old life ended and her new one began.

It was hard not excluding Mark, she recalled. Suddenly her only concern was for the baby. She wanted everything to be perfect, and she wanted to control every aspect of the baby’s life. She was reluctant to let him do anything—she had to pick the clothes, soothe the crying, rock her to sleep, yet she knew that relegating Mark to this secondary role was bad for him, bad for their relationship, bad for his own bonding with the baby, and it also made it hard for him to give her the help and support she needed. She tried to include him, to share some of the care and the decisions, but in the end, he went back to work and she stayed home and became the center of their family life. It was the same when the other children arrived—even more so, because by then there was a pattern they all fit into. He was so busy trying to make partner in the law firm, traveling often and staying late at the office, someone needed to assume the central family role, and she thought he was grateful she chose to step in. He played with the children, consulted on decisions when asked, accompanied them on excursions that Jennifer planned, and attended the birthday parties she organized. They loved him, she thought with satisfaction. He provided a glow as comforting and dependable as the moon’s. But in that small family universe, she, Jennifer, was the sun.

She dressed quickly and had just finished packing when the phone rang. She could see from the caller ID that the call came from Spain, and she answered it quickly.

“Hello,” came a woman’s distant voice that sounded American. “May I please speak to Mr. or Mrs. Lewis?”

“This is Mrs. Lewis.” Her voice was tight and she felt short-winded.

“My name is Julia Zimmerman. I’m a friend of Emma’s on the Princeton program in Spain.” The voice stopped, as though hesitant to go on.

“Yes,” Jennifer prodded.

“I don’t know if Emma was able to get through to you, but she’s in trouble and I wanted to be sure you knew.”

Jennifer took a deep breath. “Yes, we know. She called early this morning from jail.”

“Oh, good,” Julia Zimmerman said. “The thing is, she really needs you to come right away and to get her a good lawyer. The police are interviewing everyone, and people are saying terrible things about her. I know she couldn’t have done this. I just wish Paco hadn’t disappeared.”


“Her boyfriend. She was with him earlier last night, before this all happened. I know he could clear her, but no one knows where he is.”

“Her boyfriend?”

Julia paused, confused. “I’m sorry. I thought you knew. They lived together. Well, some of the time.”

Jennifer bit her upper lip.

“I really have to go, Mrs. Lewis. I’m sorry, but the police told me not to talk to anyone and I could get in trouble.”

“Wait—please, Julia. What terrible things are they saying about Emma? Who is saying these things? Who was killed? How is Emma connected to all this?”

“I’m sorry, I can’t tell you on the phone. Maybe we can talk when you come.”

“But how can I reach you—” Jennifer began, but Julia interrupted.

“I’ll e-mail you,” she said hurriedly, and hung up.

In the eight months that Emma had been in Spain, during which she and Emma had e-mailed back and forth every day, Jennifer had never heard that her daughter had a boyfriend named Paco.

She went back to her preparations, her mind racing. She decided not to tell Mark—why upset him more before she had the whole story? She went to the supermarket to stock up on supplies for Mark and the kids, got cash from the ATM, retrieved her passport, and finished her errands. Then she called a car to take her to the airport. Tomorrow, she would know more.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for The Perfect Mother:

"In this fictionalized account of the Amanda Knox case, journalist Darnton asks the question any parent would dread: Is my child capable of murder?

Although certainly inspired by the Knox trial, Darnton focuses more on the emotional landscape—the relationship between mother and daughter, how a child’s accomplishment becomes the parent’s. On the surface, Jennifer Lewis seems that titular perfect mother, and the proof is in Emma, the kind of teenager who volunteers, makes good grades and gets into Princeton. Now on her junior year in Spain, Emma calls home with the shocking news that a man tried to rape her and has been killed. Jennifer flies to Seville, but her reconciliation with Emma is surprisingly rocky. Released after intensive questioning (she claims that after she screamed for help, a stranger came into her apartment, killed the rapist and fled), Emma is hostile and uncommunicative. Their high-priced Spanish lawyer and private detective Roberto Ortiz suggest more cooperation—according to Spanish law, if the police simply charge her with a crime, she can wait up to four years in prison before a trial even begins, and as it stands, the police don’t believe her story. And neither does Emma’s father, Mark, a corporate lawyer, though Jennifer is convinced her daughter would never lie. As Jennifer becomes angry at Mark for his disloyalty, she becomes close with Roberto, who offers just the reassurances (she really is a good mother) that Jennifer needs to hear. When Emma’s story begins to fall apart—her boyfriend, Paco, is an ex-con drug dealer, the “rapist” a good boy from an affluent family, and her own kitchen knife is the murder weapon—Jennifer considers other aspects of her daughter’s past, including lying, cheating and stealing, that reveal more than she can admit about her daughter and herself.

A fast-paced thriller with the kind of emotional impact that transcends a simple whodunit." —Kirkus Reviews

“This haunting page-turner will keep you up all night and be long remembered after the last page has been read.” —Mary Higgins Clark
Praise for An African Affair:

“A vivid portrait of a troubled country.” –The New York Times

“Darnton combines real-world events with a fabulous mix of suspense and intrigue...the perfect read.” —Clive Cussler

“A smart and diverting . . . international thriller that will satisfy readers looking for new talent and a brisk read.” –Booklist

“You feel the heat, taste the frustration, and smell the fear . . . A thrilling read.” –Robin Cook

Customer Reviews