Author: P.D. Viner
Rating: 1 star
I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
This is one of those books that I was really excited to read. A dynamite cover (though it’s changed since I requested it from NetGalley, perhaps a sign of things to come). Good title. Cover copy that promised a riveting psychological thriller. But perhaps this is a sign that I should stop anticipating books so fiercely, because not only did The Last Winter of Dani Lancing fail to live up to the promise it showed, it ended up the worst reading experience I’ve had all year. And with some of the duds I’ve come across recently, that’s really saying something.
Twenty years ago, college student Dani Lancing was raped and murdered. The crime was never solved, and two decades later her parents have split up, her old boyfriend Tom is a police detective working on cases of sexual violence and murder against women, and new advances in DNA testing offer a slim chance of resolution in Dani’s case. When her mother Patty learns of this, things pretty much go to hell in a handbasket very, very fast.
The best thing I can say about The Last Winter of Dani Lancing is that it would make a fantastic Lifetime movie. The story started out fairly interesting, if cliche, but the leaps of logic and plot twists that brought it to it’s end were so increasingly improbable and ridiculous that I thought at times P.D. Viner was a high-school-aged fanfiction writer. If you’re committed to reading this novel, you may want to skip the rest of this review as there are spoilers I could find no way around in trying to convey how batshit crazy this plot got.
There were three main problems with the writing to take into account before even getting to the plot. First, the novel is told in present tense. This isn’t an automatic dealbreaker for me, but I really don’t like it. It also makes no concessions to chronology, jumping around Dani’s childhood, the murder, the aftermath, and the present day with incredible frequency. Again, not a dealbreaker, but not fun. Finally, the close-third POV jumps between characters without any pattern whatsoever, sometimes even within the same paragraph. Most of the POV characters are the main three and the villain, but some are so ancillary to the action that it completely threw me out of the story.
None of these writing problems, though signs of a weak novelist, bothered me much on their own. For quite awhile I was planning to give this book 3 stars. But then there were the characters, and then they started doing things.
First, we have Jim, who actually doesn’t do much of anything, except lie around the house being haunted by his daughter. That’s right, Dani Lancing is a ghost, and she’s been hanging out with dear old dad for twenty years. He takes her on walks to the park, luxuriates in the memories of her idyllic childhood, and doesn’t really do anything else for twenty years, until his ex-wife calls him to break her out of a hospital. (Dani, meanwhile, kind of just hangs there, with complete ghost amnesia, adding nothing to the plot.)
Next there’s Patty, Dani’s mom, an ex-journalist with Parkinson’s whose been living on bitterness for two decades and collapses a lot at helpfully plot-appropriate moments. Despite (because of?) a bad relationship with her daughter, she’s obsessed with revenge, and when she thinks she has pinned the man who killed her, she (I repeat, a 60 year old woman with a disease that makes her frail and prone to passing out a lot) kidnaps and murders him. This turned out to be probably the most realistic situation in the entire book.
Then, there is Tom. Oh, Tom. How I hated this little shit.
Once upon a time Dani Lancing gave him a kiss. She was thinking of someone else, they in fact never dated, and she never wanted anything to do with him romantically. And yet she is the great love of his life, he has spent twenty years thinking of no one else, and has been given the moniker The Sad Man because rapes and murders of poor, innocent girls make him cry. This was enough to make me turn away in disgust, but oh, it got so much worse.
Not only did Tom fancy that he was going to marry Dani Lancing (whenever she just came to her senses, whenever he could convince her that he was her protector and savior), he basically assumed ownership of her. And that meant anyone who she was in a relationship with, or anyone who besmirched her good name, was fodder for extreme physical violence and that he could use his status as a police officer to frame them for felonies. Nice guy, right? Really the kind of hero you root for, you know, cause he cries a lot.
The truth behind Dani’s death is that she was a drug addict (she becomes a full on smack addict in the course of like, three weeks) who was passed around as a sex object between some gang members and overdosed. Tom finds this out, and goes through extreme measures to cover it up, because his poor, precious Dani was so pure and lovely that it’s better to have twenty years thinking there’s a psycosexual killer on the loose than to have anyone say anything bad about her. This is all revealed by a mustache-twirlingly cardboard villain who’s after Tom for revenge (and who could blame him? Tom sucked). Dani’s ghost ascends to heaven in peace, the villain is knocked into a coma, everyone forgives Tom (cause he did it for his ONE TRUE LOVE, guys), and things pretty much end up hunky dory. Jim and Patty even end up reuniting because there’s nothing like kidnap and murder (with a horrifying bonus suicide thrown in) to make you want to dance on hillsides and renew your vows.
This novel was so bad. I felt incredibly sorry for Dani, who wasn’t so much a character as a blank canvas for everyone to project their expectations on. The plot was tortured; the characters flat, cliche, and universally unlikable. And if this is held up as an example of an intense psychological thriller, well, perhaps I’m done with the genre for awhile.