Beware the Man of the Year. You may praise him, resent him, even want to be him: but beneath the elegant trappings that define him, danger looms. Caroline Louise Walker’s stunning debut novel, for fans of Herman Koch’s The Dinner and Shari Lapena’s The Couple Next Door, delves into the increasingly paranoid mind of a man whose life as the most upstanding of citizens hides a relentlessly dark heart.
Dr. Robert Hart, Sag Harbor’s just-named Man of the Year, is the envy of his friends and neighbors. His medical practice is thriving. He has a beautiful old house and a beautiful new wife and a beautiful boat docked in the village marina. Even his wayward son, Jonah, is back on track, doing well at school, finally worthy of his father’s attentions. So when Jonah’s troubled college roommate, Nick, needs a place to stay for the summer, Hart and his wife generously offer him their guest house. A win-win: Jonah will have someone to hang with, and his father can bask in the warm glow of his own generosity.
But when he begins to notice his new houseguest getting a little too close to his wife, the good doctor’s veneer begins to crack. All the little lies Robert tells—harmless falsehoods meant to protect everything he holds dear—begin to mount. Before long, he’s embroiled in a desperate downward spiral, destroying the lives that stand in his way. It’s only the women in his life—his devoted office manager, his friends, his wife—who can clearly see the truth.
Biting and timely, Man of the Year races along at an electric pace, with a wicked twist that you won’t see coming.
I have been reading since before I could talk properly. This means that I have read a lot of books: good, bad, life-changing, downright terrible. However, I can count on one hand how many books have genuinely made me angry and count my time wasted. Man of the Year is unfortunately one of them.
Don’t get me wrong. If I could rate about ninety percent of the book, it would get a near perfect rating. There is no doubt that the author is talented. She can weave beautiful sentences, and make a truly despicable character magnetic and irresistible. Dr. Robert Hart is the epitome of white male privilege: he married a younger woman after having an affair, and still wins Man of the Year in his community. His clinic is thriving, his son is beginning to get his act together in his eyes, and everyone wishes they were him. Yet, his character is dark and conniving. It is made clear very early on that he’s a horrible human being, but Caroline Louise Walker gets away with this by making his inner dialogue something uncomfortably relatable. You know those thoughts you get about a person or situation, and instantly regret them? Or those generalizations you make that end up being so wrong? Walker channels every guilt and sin that has flashed through our minds and makes it the bulk of Robert’s character. It’s terrible, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s also something maddeningly amusing and understandable.
This character ends up propelling us through the book, and for the bulk of the book, it works pretty well. Being this kind of person who is honest in a way that is so one-dimensional and awful is going to make trouble, and when Jonah’s friend Nick stays for a visit, this becomes plain immediately. Robert’s paranoia about Nick, Jonah, and his wife Elizabeth causes him to do terrible things, which naturally have terrible consequences. It makes for a unique thriller even though the circumstances necessarily aren’t. There are just so many strings for Walker to pull. Lives are too complicated to easily manipulate, and this is something Robert fails to learn throughout the book.
The problems with Man of the Year start roughly at the 2/3 mark. I do wonder if Walker wrote herself into a corner with this one, because there are several times the book stalls out. I found myself skipping ahead, not because of an old habit for spoilers, but I was literally thinking “Is there any point to reading this?” Obviously, the answer was yes each time, but it felt like the author kept getting stuck and had to force her way out. This never bodes well, and I found myself nervous for the ending.
My feelings were founded. The ending is the entire reason I started the review the way I did. I will try to describe it as spoiler-free as possible, but the bottom line is that Walker depends on two other characters to close out our story. This forces Robert into a static position. He has learned nothing, he has discovered nothing, and the reason for him telling this whole story in the first place is non-existent. Walker found herself with a bunch of strings she couldn’t resolve without resorting to parlor tricks and illusions, things that have had no relevance to the story she decided to tell. I could tell the last lines were meant to show that the story isn’t over, but it was really just another convenient explanation.
I hate having to review a book this way, because I really did enjoy it for the most part. But an ending has the power to make or break a book, and in this case, Man of the Year‘s ending firmly falls in the latter camp. I thank NetGalley and Gallery Books for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.