Problem Child by Victoria Helen Stone

March 25, 2020

B-

Problem Child

by Victoria Helen Stone
March 24, 2020 · Lake Union Publishing
Mystery/Thriller

Content warnings: childhood sexual abuse, murder, sociopathy

I have read and reread Jane Doe (Book 1 in the series) more times than I can feasibly count. So it was with an intense case of Grabby Hands that I dove for Problem Child, a novel that follows Jane during the next step in her life. And…well…. It pains me to say this, but it was okay. It’s a solid, capable book, but it never reaches the dizzying heights of its predecessor.

First book summary!

Jane spent the first book meting out the most glorious justice on a fuckboy whose cruelty had prompted her best (and only) friend to kill herself. At the close of book one, Jane is living happily in Minneapolis with her cat. She has a boyfriend, Luke, who finds her coldness a ‘cooling balm.’ He doesn’t know she’s cold because she’s a sociopath.

At the start of book 2, unfortunately, Luke is about to mess up their happy ending by suggesting that he and Jane live together. Jane freaks out and finds a convenient excuse to temporarily escape the situation by agreeing to look for her missing niece, Kayla.

‘Dysfunctional’ is an apt descriptor for Jane’s family so it is no great surprise that things have not gone well for Kayla. She has disappeared and no one seems to know or care that she’s nowhere to be found. What holds Jane’s interest is that Kayla is apparently ‘just like her’. The prospect of meeting another sociopath, someone who will fully understand her, is too great a temptation to pass up. So Jane heads back home to Oklahoma to look for Kayla.

Perhaps the biggest issue with this book is getting through the first 40%. The bit of plot I’ve given in this review takes an inordinate amount of time to cover. BUT! While it is a slow in the beginning, the last 30% of the book is ON FIRE and you will speedread it, guaranteed.

Part of what slows the first part of the book down is Jane’s plentiful diatribes on humanity. Jane’s cruel and brutal descriptions and justifications can be a little jarring. To be told boldly about the nature of workplace harassment can be painful, but – and perhaps this is because I have skirted the worst of this sort of harassment – it is also a little liberating. My father’s home language is Afrikaans and they have a saying: “noem a ding op sy naam”. You would translate it as “call a thing by its name”, but in Afrikaans it has an altogether more direct feeling. It is as though the slippery concept in question is being skewered to a wall – a direct blow, with no slithering away into the dark corners. This is what Jane does when she describes rape culture, workplace harrasment and the plethora of other issues created by patriarchal, capitalist society.

Once this is all out of the way, the book speeds up. Kayla has wrapped herself in a messy situation and it is up to Jane to extricate her niece from this mess without breaking any laws – not because of any moral issue with law-breaking, but because breaking the law might land Jane in jail and she likes her life the way it is. The various twists in this part of the book are very satisfying and they lead to a warm-fuzzy HFN. Well…there is a slight cliffhanger ending, but it’s not the sort of cliffhanger that leaves me vengefully googling articles desperate to find out what will happen. This is the sort of gentle cliffhanger that sets up Book 3 (but I do need to find out if there will be a third book!).

The heart of the book is really Luke. Luke is the archetypical kind guy and Jane is deeply appreciative of him. There is one potential snag for some readers: she manipulates Luke with sex. In my relationship, this would be anathema to me. But in her relationship she feels a tremendous amount of warmth and closeness during sex. So perhaps the sex is not always a tool to manipulate him, but a tool to help her feel connected to Luke emotionally. This, and other examples, make Jane – someone who should be an anti-hero – into someone I genuinely love. The Jane she presents to the reader is not the Jane the readers see and this difference is heartwarming. She is neither as soulless nor as cruel as she imagines herself to be.

However, she certainly has cold-blooded moments. I find myself envious of her ability to seek justice and fairness without fear of ‘causing a scene’ or ‘losing respect’. She is calculating, while I am all about feeling my way through a situation. And perhaps that’s what Luke and I have in common – Jane really is a cool balm in our searing dumpster fire world.

The slow start to the book and the appearance of Kayla, a person about whom I’ve not made up my mind (is she like Jane, or is she a true monster?) pulled this book into a B for me. The ending of this book delivers some Good Book Noise, but in comparison to the ending of the first book (which was a BELTER and deeply cathartic) it falls short. Will I reread this book? No. Am I holding out for book 3? Absolutely!

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