‘The House Guest’ by Hank Phillippi Ryan – when can you trust your heart?

There is the universal problem with the house guest who won’t leave, and in “The House Guest,” author Hank Phillippi Ryan delivers a house guest who is definitely more than she first appears to be. Actually, the situation suggests the plural form of this singular title; a second title might well be “The House Guests.”

When we first meet Alyssa, the main character, she is drowning her sorrows in a martini in a local hotel because of her pending divorce with all its attendant bitterness and acrimony. It’s not an exclusive hotel where she might meet some of her husbands’ rich and tony friends, but a traveler friendly kind where rooms are affordable. As she gets ready to leave, ready to finish contemplating her misery in her large, exquisite, lonely home, a single woman enters the bar and they start talking. Bree, her newfound acquaintance, haltingly alludes to a tale of flight, fear, and abuse.

Alone in her huge mansion, Alyssa is haunted by her fears that her husband, Bill, might sneak back inside to frighten her. She is convinced that he leaves clues on purpose to show her that he is powerful and can do anything he pleases, in spite of an agreement between them, curated by their attorneys, that he will let her know when he is coming to the house. Her curiosity piqued, she Googles Bree’s name to see if she’s really who she says she is. Everything checks out, from her name to her low-paying job with a small bank. The next night, she’s back at the bar, and this time she invites Bree to come back and stay in her guest house.

In Alyssa’s mansion, the two women continue to bond over crackers and cheese, Bree tells Alyssa about how she doesn’t feel safe, and Alyssa feels that she’s met a kindred spirit. As their relationship slowly progresses, Alyssa helps Bree with a DNA test Bree’s mother had asked her to do, and Bree finds out, again with Alyssa’s help, that she is heir to a fortune. A previously unknown brother had left her his estate when he recently passed away. The young and handsome attorney whom they meet when visiting the brother’s house is the one who breaks the news, and from that point on, he’s a part of their group as well. Dez takes Bree and Alyssa to his office, where a senior partner explains the inheritance and shows them documents regarding the huge sum that Bree will be inheriting.

Because it’s going to take a while for the estate to go through probate, Bree continues to stay with Alyssa in her mansion. Bree is in the guest house, and Dez ends up staying in a guest room in the big house. They drink a lot, which is why the two women tell Dez to stay and not drive home. Curiously, he doesn’t leave. We learn more about Alyssa and Bill and their eight years of marital bliss, until the day that Bill told Alyssa that he needed a “break” and was moving out. Now she’s angry and bitter. She had pictured a life with children, but Bill didn’t want kids. She had met him while she was in law school, but he convinced her to quit because he came from a wealthy background, with a trust fund and a lucrative business. Their life together had been idyllic, with homes on the coast and in the Caribbean, hired people who catered to their every whim, and membership in exclusive clubs. Now Alyssa is worried that she’ll end up with nothing after giving him eight years of her life catering to his every need.

As the plot unfolds, we become suspicious of Bree and Dez. Their relationship is strange, almost more like siblings than anything romantic. Why is Dez so entrenched in their lives, even accompanying them to Cape Cod when Alyssa decides they need to get away for a bit. Alyssa herself, through the narrative that shares her thoughts and feelings, wonders about them. And when an FBI agent shows up, things get stranger and stranger. In fact, Bree mentions Alice in Wonderland, which is when we learn that Alyssa’s name was Alice until Bill decided she seemed like an Alyssa. We realize that Alyssa really had given up a lot to be with Bill, including her name as well as her ambition — all to become arm candy, someone who planned social events and appeared with him at society parties and fund raisers.

The reader must be careful about possible whiplash from the twist and turns that come up. Some confirm what we’ve smugly suspected as we see where the narrative is taking us, feeling sure that we know who is really not who they say they are. But then Ryan pulls aside the curtain, and we see what lies behind it, at least what lies behind it at that moment, which isn’t a guarantee that what we are looking at isn’t a clever manipulation while the truth is something else after all. Whiplash, indeed.

The whole story is a clever view of many women who accompany ultra-wealthy men. The trophy wives. The ones the men dismiss and don’t respect. Even Alyssa’s beautiful home, which Bill proudly said was bought for her, was decorated not to her taste, but to the taste of his high-priced decorator. As a result, the home is cold and colorless. Like her current life. Ryan also forces us to consider the issue of trust. While Alyssa repeats that she doesn’t really know Bree, at the same time, she really likes Bree and trusts her. We wonder how much of that trust is due to the fact that she’s been convinced that Bree isn’t after money because Bree is coming into her own money. The ending is absolutely and unexpectedly perfect as Alyssa happily weathers the storm and truly comes into her own.

Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.