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The Only Child by Andrew Pyper

BOTTOM LINE: A true disappointment

Genre: Horror
Publication Date: 23 May 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“As a forensic psychiatrist at New York’s leading institution of its kind, Dr. Lily Dominick has evaluated the mental states of some of the country’s most dangerous psychotics. But the strangely compelling client she interviewed today—a man with no name, accused of the most twisted crime—struck her as somehow different from the others, despite the two impossible claims he made.

First, that he is more than two hundred years old and personally inspired Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker in creating the three novels of the nineteenth century that define the monstrous in the modern imagination. Second, that he’s Lily’s father. To discover the truth—behind her client, her mother’s death, herself—Dr. Dominick must embark on a journey that will threaten her career, her sanity, and ultimately her life.

Fusing the page-turning tension of a first-rate thriller with a provocative take on where thrillers come from, The Only Child will keep you up until its last unforgettable revelation.”

My Thoughts: The Only Child suffers from trying to be too much at the same time. Its mix of Gothic, horror, psychological thriller, murder mystery, and hint of coming-of-age story does not blend well together; at times, they even fight for dominance. While it is an outstanding premise, this is one novel in which the execution does the story an injustice.

One of the main issues with The Only Child is the characters. Lily starts out being very strongly developed. Independent, aloof, highly intelligent, and emotionally tough, she confronts sociopaths on a daily basis without batting an eye. Her calm demeanor and her ability to remain unruffled in spite of talking with some of the sickest minds in the country are admirable, and one wishes for more insight into how she is able to maintain such control under such trying circumstances. Unfortunately, after she meets her mysterious client who claims to be her father, all of those attributes which made her so fascinating disappear. Lily rapidly devolves into an emotional wreck, almost incapable of making decisions for herself. While still intelligent, she loses her common sense and ventures into situations which make no sense for her character. Even though she had no problems remaining independent and isolated for her adult life, suddenly she is unable to be alone and laments her lack of parents. While meant to highlight her lack of control over her client, her devolution nonetheless is irksome because it did not have to be so complete and so rapid.

Michael is also a flawed character in that the development of his character is weak. Claiming to be the origins behind Frankenstein, Mr. Hyde, and Dracula provides him with an interesting backstory, albeit slightly fuzzy on the details department. His personal origins in particular are superficial, warranting more of a comment than a full description. Once he meets Lily in person though and he stops providing clues about his past, he too devolves. As with Lily, the rapidity of this weakens the story because it becomes a crucial plot point later in the novel. The reasons given for his transformation into the monster do not make sense. Moreover, they erase any development his character exhibited to that point. One leaves the story wishing Michael’s character had been treated differently.

The rest of the story is a blur of cat and mouse chases. Sometimes this occurs between Michael and Lily or vice versa. Sometimes, there is an additional threat of a mysterious government agency and/or bounty hunters who will stop at nothing to take Michael. As with Lily and Michael, the addition of these shadowy militant figures comes with little in the way of explanation and seem to provide the story with nothing more than a third party to confuse Lily regarding who she should trust.

The ending is the biggest disappointment of the novel with its last stand mentality. Coming after a very sudden shift in loyalties, it too is rushed with a final scene that makes one think Mr. Pyper left room for sequels. After an entire novel in which much of the violence occurs offstage, readers now get the full gore treatment. The propensity for violence was always an undercurrent of the story, which added a nice layer of suspense. The abrupt shift to shown violence is not necessarily a surprise, but one cannot help but feel it would have been a stronger story had the violence remained offstage.

With its mention of the top three original monsters in literature, it feels like The Only Child should have been a much better story. Unfortunately, the two main characters never really evoke sympathy. In fact, Lily becomes downright childish at times as she becomes unable to access the professional demeanor and intelligence that made her so compelling a figure in the beginning. Similarly, Michael’s mercurial shift from man to monster to man seems arbitrary, established merely as a convenient plot point rather than remaining true to his character. By the time one gets to the additional men also out to get Lily and/or Michael, the story devolves into a free-for-all that throws logic to the wind. If Mr. Pyper had picked just one type of story to write, The Only Child would have been much stronger. Instead, it becomes an example of how playing with multiple genres might not be the best approach for a story.

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