The Girl Before by Rena Olsen

The Girl Before by Rena Olsen
Pub. Date: August 9, 2016
Source: finished copy via publisher (Thank you, Putnam!)
Summary: Clara Lawson is torn from her life in an instant. Without warning, her home is invaded by armed men, and she finds herself separated from her beloved husband and daughters. The last thing her husband yells to her is to say nothing.

In chapters that alternate between past and present, the novel slowly unpeels the layers of Clara’s fractured life. We see her growing up, raised with her sisters by the stern Mama and Papa G, becoming a poised and educated young woman, falling desperately in love with the forbidden son of her adoptive parents. We see her now, sequestered in an institution, questioned by men and women who call her a different name—Diana—and who accuse her husband of unspeakable crimes. As recollections of her past collide with new revelations, Clara must question everything she thought she knew, to come to terms with the truth of her history and to summon the strength to navigate her future.
Genre: Contemporary, Thriller

Clara Lawson’s life changes in the time it takes a team of armed men to break into her home and separate her from her husband and their daughters. As they’re being hauled away, her husband yells one final message: say nothing. The next thing Clara knows, she’s locked inside a room and is visited everyday by agents looking for answers. Answers she swore never to provide.

Told in alternating chapters, The Girl Before slowly brings Clara’s past to light, showing the tiniest of hints as to the horror she’s witnessed and the atrocities her husband and his parents have committed, for before Clara there was Diana, a sweet 6-year-old who was ripped from her home and sent to live a new life involving meticulous training and clients willing to pay exorbitant sums for the girl of their choice.

The Girl Before is absolutely fascinating in a horrifying and chilling way. Although Clara is in her early 20s, she seems painfully young and naive, totally brainwashed by Mama Mae and Papa G’s lies of an exciting future with a wealthy man who will enable her to travel the world. Through their grooming Clara knows the ins and outs of laundry and cooking, how to remain silent and demure but still charming. Her studies have provided her with a wealth of knowledge including a fluency in numerous languages, but it’s so excruciating to see how unaware she is to the horrors of what awaits. Clara has known other girls who have arrived at the house who were too wild to go through their training and they ended up being sent to the Treehouse, Papa G’s brothel he runs on the side.

Clara was the star daughter until she did the unthinkable: she fell in love with Mama Mae and Papa G’s son Glen. Their love cost Papa G a hefty amount of money plus several other girls (in an attempt to appease the client who had his sights – and wallet – set on Clara) but they’re determined to be together and eventually take over the business.

In the present day, the agents, along with a support group and therapist, slowly crack Clara’s walls, allowing doubt to creep in. Does she have another family out there? Why would they be looking for her if Mama Mae told her they no longer wanted her? Would Glen really be hitting her to keep her in line if he truly cared about her? And what is this human trafficking the other girls in the group keep mentioning?

Although The Girl Before was downright disturbing, I tore through it, needing to know more. The then and now chapters were an absolute joy – though I’m a total sucker for past/present narratives. Watching the events of Clara’s past unfold and slowly piece together had me glued to the page and as she eventually reached an understanding about the truth of Glen’s business, well… hard to read as it was, I couldn’t look away. There’s an awful lot to discuss regarding human trafficking and abduction and whether or not Clara was really a victim and I can see this one appealing to many book clubs! Personally, I loved this one (though I could have done without the sheer amount of times Clara threw up..) I’ve been on a roll with debut thrillers this year and The Girl Before is no exception. Its subject matter might not make it a book for all readers, but this reader definitely enjoyed it and I look forward to what Olsen does next.

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