Top Shelf in July: The Hand That Feeds You by A. J. Rich

Falling in love is a mind-bending experience. All at once, your future opens before you in a sherbet-tinged horizon of everlasting bliss. Every question in this long, wandering life finds its answer in the miracle face that is suddenly smiling at you in the morning, delivering coffee, staring deep into your eyes because yes, it’s true, the feeling is mutual. This is everything you’ve ever wanted, a love story for the ages, a fairy tale made modern and real; made better, because it’s yours. In the midst of all of this, what could possibly go wrong?

Well.

What if the person sharing that bowl of sweet forever with you was lying? About everything?

The Hand That Feeds You, the brand new novel by A. J. Rich, opens with Morgan Prager’s grisly discovery of her fiancee’s body in her bed, where, police confirm, it has been mauled by dogs. As the story unfolds, Prager learns the unsettling, ultimately terrifying, truth; the man with whom she was prepared to spend the rest of her life is no one she knew at all.

Author A. J. Rich is not who you think she is, either. Rich is a pseudonym for writers Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment. The two friends were inspired to write this novel (Hempel’s first) when one of their good friends met a charming, handsome man who came on strong, was a picture-perfect match, and who then turned out to be “in love” with many women (and engaged to more than one of them). The friend talked of writing a novel, but passed away before she could tell this story of seduction, lies and psychological manipulation in her own words. And so Hempel and Ciment decided to write it for her, together.

Utilizing the magic of Google Docs, the authors plotted each turn and twist before each other’s eyes, simultaneously inventing the story while living many miles apart. The result is a tightly woven narrative that crisscrosses New York City as Prager meets her fiance’s other lovers and uncovers more and more unbelievable facets of the lie she unwittingly lived.

Part of what’s most engaging about this book is that Morgan Prager is not a naive victim. In fact, she is completing her thesis on victim psychology. In her trauma, she becomes her own case study. As Prager digs into her dead lover’s past, she digs into her own behavior, analyzing her instincts of trust, loyalty and affection, while reconciling the real person behind the brilliant fantasy she fell in love with.

I picked up this book because Amy Hempel is my patron saint of short fiction. Her sentences changed my life. Her creative process fascinates me. I thought I would spend this reading experience picking out which line belonged to Hempel, which image must have come from Ciment, but the writers’ union on the page is seamless, and instead I wholly lost myself in unwinding Morgan Prager’s mystery. (Though I can’t help but believe that the significance of dogs to the story, with their themes of loyalty, trust and companionship, comes straight from Hempel’s keyboard.)

Every day, in ways large and small, we put our confidence in people. We allow ourselves to believe that words are true, intents clear and direct. We trust what we see, what we’re given. We forget that there is often a deeper truth. When that truth kicks us in the gut, when our senses and radars and intuition are thrown out of whack and we glimpse the world before us with new eyes, it’s both terrifying and exhilarating. It feels not unlike falling in love. Hempel and Ciment lasso this confusion with precision and style. Together, they’ve penned a top rate psychological thriller that makes for one heck of a summer read.

~Julie W., BookPeople Marketing Director and Amy Hempel Disciple

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