The NeedThe Need by Helen Phillips
My rating: 5/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

four months before pub date and it’s already clear that this is a very polarizing book.

it’s also a book best gone into blind, with no expectations about whether you will exit through the “love” or “hate” tunnel.

i know that’s a big risk, right – to not know anything about a book except that people have strong, and strongly divided, opinions about it? but it’s extremely landminey to talk about, because not only does this one have THINGS THAT HAPPEN spoilers but it also has tonal/genre spoilers, which leaves precious little for the courteous reviewer to discuss. and i am most certainly a courteous reviewer.

the GR synopsis is more detailed, but all i knew about this book was what was printed on the back of my ARC:

From the Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist and author of The Beautiful Bureaucrat comes a subversive, speculative thriller about a scientist and mother of two young children who, by confronting a masked intruder in her home, slips into an existential rabbit hole where she grapples with the dualities of motherhood — joy and dread, mundanity and transcendence — in blazing, arresting prose.

that’s basically nothing. in terms of actual plot points, you get some nouns: scientist, mother, children, intruder; the conflict is covered by the vagueness of “confronting,” and then it’s all abstractions and filler. what book about motherhood doesn’t concern itself with both the joy and dread, mundanity and transcendence of the role? even “subversive, speculative thriller” is broad and subjective and slippery – is it a spy thriller, a psychological thriller, a romantic thriller? i mean, even Heart of Darkness is a thriller, on strictly generic grounds.

if it sounds like i’m criticizing the back copy, i’m not. i think that’s exactly the right approach to selling this book, and it’s incredibly difficult to write something to entice a reader to pick up a book while also trying to keep its secrets.

as you can see in my struggles here today.

i went in blind and wary; i’d read one of the author’s previous books, The Beautiful Bureaucrat, and it wasn’t a ‘me’ book – it was one of those books that you feel in your headspace but not in your gut, if that makes sense. it was distancing and cerebral and i just never fell into it.

but this one? this is all gut.

and it is indeed very much about motherhood, a theme that rarely resonates with me. i don’t have kids, haven’t ever wanted kids, spend zero time around kids, don’t usually have any interest in reading about kids, but somehow, this book made the experience of motherhood so vivid in all of its facets – the primal bond and the exhaustion and the doubts and hopes and physical discomfort and the boredom and the fierce emotional tether and the pride and helplessness and fears and fears and fears – that i felt – i’m not presumptuous enough to declare that “now i know what motherhood is like,” but i did feel a something in the collective unconscious of my wombish region.

as for the shakier ground where i must tiptoe, the plot-shocker comes early and in that moment, i was reminded of another book, but to name it here would be both spoilery and somehow also misleading, so if you wanna go detecting, it’s a this-color book:

View Spoiler »

having that reference in my head was great, because it gave me an unintentional, additional red herring layer in a book already chummed with red herrings. it’s a very held-breath kind of book, where you’re never sure if it’s going to veer into horror or sci fi or psychological suspense – is this real, is this an unreliable narrator going mad, is this our world or a slipstream world in which things like this just happen sometimes? is it gonna do this? is it gonna go there?

and that’s fun to me – unexpected plot twists are one thing, but it’s much less common for there to be a suspensefulness to the kind of book we’re reading, and that was so exciting – it’s ominous and keeps you on edge, anxious to see where it’s going, all frantic page-turning anticipation.

last week i had the opportunity to hear the author speak about where this book came from, emotionally, and everything clicked into place. because of course this is the novel that comes out of that.

addressing some of the criticisms i’ve seen on here – yeah, there are some unanswered questions at the end of it all. there aren’t a lot of explanations about some of the things that exist or occur that maybe just add textural flourishes to the story. but there is so much wonderfully visceral writing and such raw emotional grit and cerebral headfuckery, i don’t even care about the unexplained bits.

i am going to be naughty and type out one of my favorite passages in the book, because i think it gives a perfect idea of the hard-to-articulate combination of the ominous and the everyday – the ordinary horror of being in a grocery store with very young children with the suggestion of maybe/maybe not horrors of a different kind lurking in the wings. but i’ll mute it because, again, courteous.

View Spoiler »


4.5 rounded up because i did not love The Beautiful Bureaucrat, so this one gets extra points for being so much more my kind of thing. no one ever said math was an exact science.

review to come.

read my reviews on goodreads

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