Harriet Lane’s debut novel, Alys, Always opens with a catalyzing moment, as narrator Frances Thorpe witnesses a fatal car crash and hears the victim’s last words while waiting for help to arrive. Lane devotes the rest of the book to how that incident shapes Frances’ life, but seemingly gave no thought to how she got there in the first place, which creates a frustrating disconnect.
Thirtysomething and going nowhere, Frances is single, mostly friendless, underappreciated at her job, living in a shabby apartment, and envious of her boss, who can afford to get coffee from the fancy café Frances reserves for treats. A former editor and writer at Tatler and the Observer, Lane writes from experience when she places Frances in an editing job for the books section of a London magazine. Her scenes at work do an excellent job of showing that glamour and drudgery can coexist. Frances gets to go to swanky parties and meet the city’s literary elite, but she’s mostly spending her days correcting spelling mistakes, rewriting pieces, and generally covering for employees with more clout who aren’t getting their work done.
When the police ask Frances if she’ll meet with the crash victim’s family, she refuses until she discovers that the victim was Alys Kyte, wife of the rich, famous novelist Laurence Kyte. Seeing an opportunity to change her fortune, she sets in motion a plan to take over Alys’ life by serving as a confidant for her impetuous college-age daughter Polly, while seducing Laurence.
Frances proves to be a master manipulator, carefully analyzing every word and interaction, identifying her biggest challenges, and when necessary, taking direct action to get her way. These don’t seem to be new skills she’s just discovering, so the question is how someone so patient and manipulative ended up in the pitiable position where Frances starts the book.
There are glimpses of Frances’ coldness early, like when she considers if she’ll have to “let go” of a longtime friend due to finding her pregnancy boring. But Frances largely morphs into a different character. She starts out as a sympathetic, realistic protagonist who dreads the obligatory visits to her parents and the questions about whether she’s seeing someone, then becomes a woman in charge of every conversation. Lane introduces characters who could see through Frances’ scheme, like Laurence’s savvy agent, but after one conversation, that threat disappears with a hand-wave. Watching France’s machinations come together makes for fascinating reading, but the lack of conflict, realism, or likeable characters keeps Alys, Always from being satisfying.