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Book Review: Live to Tell by Wendy Corsi Staub

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Live to Tell is a best-selling novel that I looked forward to reading. As you know, reviews that begin, “I was looking forward to reading this book,” are not often written by people who will urge you to run out and buy “this book.” Just as I am delighted when I expect a dud but find a gem, I am disappointed when I expect excitement and get, well, words. Live to Tell is not a bad book, and Wendy Corsi Staub is not a bad writer. She certainly knows a lot of words.

Staub also knows how to build suspense. But reading Live to Tell is like having someone tell you at 5 a.m., “We’re really going to have a great dessert tonight,” and reminding you every five minutes. Here it’s “there’s some really good stuff at the end of this book…” We get it already; it’s a thriller; we know there’s going to be good stuff at the end.

There are three families in Live to Tell, and they are connected by secrets. Big secrets. Secrets that the author will only hint at for three hundred or so pages. It’s irritating. I don’t always want to guess how a story will end, but I’d like to be pointed in the right direction not dragged along without a clue. The odd thing about Live to Tell is that the author telegraphs too much on the first few pages.

Live to Tell is the story of a newly-single mom, Lauren, who is smart unless the plot requires her to do something dumb. Then she’s numbingly dumb. Her two-dimensional louse of a husband left her for another woman, and she spends a lot of time thinking what a bum he is to have done this to her and their three children. She examines her own feelings at such great length, we double check our mail to see if we received an invitation to this pity party.

What happens to Lauren and her children is the result of a lost stuffed rabbit that insensitive Dad tries to replace with a stuffed dog containing a secret. Hidden inside is a “memory stick” holding files for which a certain New York conservative congressman/gubernatorial candidate would kill. His is the second family in the book.

The congressman had done terrible things a long time ago. He is a liar, a hypocrite and he’s ghoulishly cold-blooded. To keep his secret he continues to do terrible things. You may wonder how that makes him different from the rest of Congress. The original scandal that put all of his machinations in motion is laughable — something that wouldn’t shock most New York voters. It might have helped him.

The third family is a couple whose child was abducted fourteen years ago. Their story seems so unconnected to the other two that it is maddening. After more than half the book, when we get enough information to connect dots we also get their connection to the Congressman and his family. It’s anticlimactic.

Staub gives us a story — a thriller — filled with description that would have worked better if there was less. Most of her characters are so well delineated that we can see them, but reading repetitive details (e.g., involving the father’s disappearance) is like being beaten to death with a feather. Will it never end? As we near the end of the book, the suspense builds, but by that time the reader has most of it figured out and expects things will turn out okay. Live to Tell ends with an unsurprising final twist that sets us up for Staub’s next novel.

Bottom Line: Would I buy Live to Tell? No. This is one NYT best-seller that didn’t work for me.

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