When Pete and Maddie discover that the child they brought home from hospital two years ago is not the same one as Maddie gave birth to, an already fraught situation rapidly blows up into something altogether more dangerous and frightening in JP Delaney’s latest novel Playing Nice.
Pete Riley answers the door one morning to a parent’s worst nightmare. On his doorstep is Miles Lambert, who breaks the devastating news that Pete’s two-year-old, Theo, isn’t Pete’s real son – their babies got mixed up at birth.
The two families – Pete, his partner Maddie, and Miles and his wife Lucy – agree that, rather than swap the boys back, they’ll try to find a more flexible way to share their children’s lives. But a plan to sue the hospital triggers an investigation that unearths disturbing questions about just what happened the day the babies were switched.
And when Theo is thrown out of nursery for hitting other children, Maddie and Pete have to ask themselves: how far do they want this arrangement to go? What secrets lie hidden behind the Lamberts’ smart front door? How much can they trust the real parents of their child – or even each other?
When both sets of parents appeared to be Playing Nice in coming to such an amicable arrangement for their children who were switched at birth, I thought JP Delaney might have gone soft on us for a change. These people were behaving like grown-ups. Happily for me, even if not for the characters, the parental accord didn’t hold and it wasn’t long before the warning signs and cracks began to appear in their arrangement as well as in their relationships. Which is when things started to get interesting.
The chapters alternate between Maddy and Pete telling the story of what happens once Miles breaks the news to them that he has their son and they have his, together with what happened two years ago when their sons were both born premature, and interspersed with extracts from evidential documents for a court hearing.
Characters’ secrets and flaws reveal themselves, as if Delaney is setting off a series of detonations, each one different in size and impact but all of them rippling out before coming back to hit Maddie and Pete, who are more open and less adept at covering their tracks or seeing the danger ahead. Hearing from both their perspectives is important because while we see what is good between them and what works in their relationship and parenting set up, we also see what they keep from each other and sense when it might be an issue later. And even where they mean well, the reader can tell before they do how their acts or omissions might look to others and even potentially count against them.
Miles’ behaviour seems slightly odd, at first; you could dismiss it, perhaps even attribute it to his over-enthusiasm and excitement at getting to know his biological son. But the warning signs are there, even if Maddie and Pete are slow to spot them for what they are and protect themselves by putting appropriate boundaries in place. When they do realise the full extent of what’s happening, they have to decide what part Lucy plays in all of this – she’s a more enigmatic character and harder to read for reasons which only later become apparent – and then decide how they’re going to react.
Playing Nice really packs an emotional punch for the time we spend with these characters and their premature babies in NICU alone. But Delaney’s latest psychological thriller deals with way more besides that on its way to resolving custody of these two little boys who were switched at birth.
It looks as different parenting styles and approaches and the difference they can make to a child’s behaviour and development or if some behaviours are inherent. It considers the little white lies people tell in order to protect the ones they love or want to help and the omissions they make when they think it might count against them. It shows us how easily what we text or share online, however innocent it may have seemed at the time, can be taken out of context. It shows to heart-wrenching effect how a child can be weaponised in a dispute and how what you thought would protect him only serves to expose you further. It shows how a parent’s love doesn’t always come naturally or need biology to make it any less powerful or true.
Playing Nice forces us to consider whether playing fair or nice is the right thing to do when having to compete with someone who will do whatever it takes to win, no matter the cost, or if we actually need to play them at their game, and employ questionable, if not dirty tactics. All the while against a backdrop of trying to figure out which way we think the final decision will go: what is in the best interests of the children, both of whom were born premature, and does what we know about each of them change how we view the individual desired outcomes?
As with his other books, JP Delaney takes you to some very dark and twisted places and certainly isn’t Playing Nice while exploring his characters’ reactions, first to the news of the swap, and then to the resultant fallout. With each new revelation, my heart was in my mouth and I bounced around between feeling deep sympathy, shock, heartbreak, frustration, hope, anger, alarm and back again. It’s never an entirely comfortable read but JP Delaney is a master of manipulation when it comes to both his characters and my head and my heart in Playing Nice.
Playing Nice by JP Delaney is published by Quercus Books and is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback with the paperback due out in March next year. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive instead where each purchase helps to support your local independent bookshop.
My thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.