What's really going on in 'The House Across the Lake'? Riley Sager thriller keeps readers guessing

·3 min read

Just when you think you know someone, everything changes.

"The House Across the Lake" (Dutton, 368 pp., ★★★ out of four), the newest novel from bestselling author Riley Sager, drops readers in the middle of a tropical storm – and a demand for answers from a tied-up suspect in a missing person's case – and then jumps back in time to what happened before.

Casey Fletcher, a stage and screen actor, just wants to forget. She has come to her family's Lake Greene home – mostly forced against her will by her mother, Broadway legend Lolly Fletcher – and spends her days trying to avoid more bad press and drowning painful memories in alcohol. After all, this lake is where her husband, screenwriter Leonard "Len" Bradley, died a year ago.

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Lake Greene doesn't have many residents: aside from Casey's family bungalow, there's novelist Eli Williams, who knows everyone; the Mitchells and the Fitzgeralds, who are away most of the year; and right across the lake are the newest neighbors, the glamorous Tom and Katherine Royce. Tom is a tech innovator who founded a popular social media company, and Katherine is a former supermodel.

One day, Casey is jolted from her latest drinking binge to save Katherine from drowning. The two women begin to become friends, sharing stories of their careers, friends and feelings of loneliness. But Casey, bourbon and binoculars in hand, also starts spying on her rich neighbors.

"The House Across the Lake," by Riley Sager.
"The House Across the Lake," by Riley Sager.

Casey doesn't have a very good reason for why she's spying; she's "curious, bored, nosy," she tells her cousin. Very attractive Boone Conrad is staying at the Mitchells, Eli runs errands and checks in on everyone and most interesting of all, the Royces may not be as happy or perfect as they appear.

Then Katherine vanishes, and Casey is sure something awful has happened, becoming obsessed with finding out what. But it's hard to get anyone to believe her, given her constant inebriation. So Casey and Boone, a former police officer, play detective in Katherine's disappearance, to the general annoyance of the Vermont state police detective investigating the case.

But is something more sinister happening at Lake Greene?

The real mystery, the novel seems to suggest, is: How well do we really know someone?

Casey might be obsessed, but she's only known Katherine a few days. And really, no one truly knows Casey. She admits she uses jokes as a deflection to meaningful connections with others.

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"What is marriage but a series of mutual deceptions?" Casey says, a line from her last play.

Sager even offers stinging commentary on social media, how fake it can be and how it's a more "acceptable form of spying."

You won't need high-powered binoculars like the ones Casey uses to see where the story seems to be headed. She's hardly the first unreliable narrator consumed with a mystery or the first protagonist whose neighborhood voyeurism may have uncovered a crime. There are shades of Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film "Rear Window" (one of Casey's favorite movies!) with horror-adjacency to R.L. Stine.

It's a familiar psychological thriller structure – until everything changes.

If you thought you knew Sager's typical double-twists, and the tropes and trips of the suspense and thriller genre, there's a tonal shift three-quarters of the way in that will either feel brilliant – or infuriating. Either reaction leads to a page-turning climax.

But as the narrative takes you back and forth through the past and present, the novel seems to be less about the mystery's twists and more about the relationships, the glimpses at the lives lived by these characters, both secret and in the open, and what it all can mean in the end.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The House Across the Lake': Riley Sager thriller keeps you guessing