Claire Douglas sets her latest novel Just Like the Other Girls in one of Bristol’s more affluent suburbs, showing us how the enviable and charming, outwardly respectable facade of a Georgian townhouse on Clifton’s leafy streets and crescents offers no protection against dark secrets, family dysfunction and danger finding their way in.
Una Richardson is devastated after the death of her mother. Hoping for a fresh start, she responds to an advertisement and steps into the rich, comforting world of elderly Mrs Elspeth McKenzie.
But Elspeth’s home is not as safe as it seems. Kathryn, her cold and bitter daughter, resents Una’s presence. More disturbing is the evidence suggesting two girls lived here before.
What happened to the girls? Why will the McKenzies not talk about them? As the walls close in around her, Una fears she’ll end up just like the other girls . . .
I rooted for Una early on, thanks in large part to her friendship with her best friend and flatmate Courtney, the fact that she’s a young girl mourning her mother but also someone who wants to move on in her life. Taking the job at Elspeth’s is her first step towards changing things up but it soon becomes clear that she’s stumbled into a potentially dangerous situation and not at all the boring or cushy number it seemed from the ad.
Elspeth is an altogether more fascinating, exceptionally tricky character to read, particularly once you discover which house name she chose. It throws up all manner of questions about her and her relationship with her offspring. Is she to be pitied, admired or reviled? Lonely and vulnerable or playing some devious game herself? It’s hard to tell but I always sensed she was the spider at the centre of this shadowy web of relationships, so central to Just Like the Other Girls.
It’s an odd sensation reading a book where one of the main characters bears your name, especially when it’s spelt the *coughs*
right same way. That gave me a bit of a kick initially, only to discover that this Kathryn is either a cold and bitter woman, at best, no doubt misunderstood to an extent, or she’s the villain of the piece.
This being a Claire Douglas book, things are never going to be quite as straightforward as all that. Douglas liberally scatters seeds of doubt around all her characters and their motivations throughout each novel and Just Like the Other Girls is no exception. She had me trying to decide if what I thought were red flags were in fact red herrings meant to distract and confuse and, all the way up to the book’s denouement, I was questioning everything and everyone, revisiting what I thought I knew and continually revising what I believed was going on. It’s an aspect of her books that I particularly enjoy and she does it exceptionally well here, wrong-footing this reader right up to the very end. She threw me so off-balance at one point that I had to take some time out before reading on.
As Claire Douglas teases out Elspeth’s family story, and that of Una and her predecessors, I never knew who to trust and rotated almost everyone, including Courtney and Elspeth’s housekeeper and just about every other secondary character, through this prism of suspicion.
With its intricate web of past secrets and relationships dynamics, Just Like the Other Girls will have you on edge and switching allegiances throughout in this involving and deeply unsettling thriller.
Just Like the Other Girls by Claire Douglas is published by Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it instead from Hive where each purchase you make helps to support your local independent bookshop.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy via NetGalley.