Ask most writers where their inspiration comes from, and they often don’t really know. Maybe an idea came in a dream, maybe it was something somebody’s mother said or did, maybe it was…magic? Jill Ciment and Amy Hempel, however, can tell you exactly where their idea for The Hand That Feeds You, their new co-written thriller, came from: it was inspired by their late friend Katherine Russell Rich, a smart and sophisticated woman who nonetheless fell for a guy who was not even close to being who he said he was. Rich, author of Dreaming in Hindi, was working on a novel based on this experience when she died of cancer in 2012. The Hand That Feeds You, written by A.J. Rich (Amy and Jill, get it?), is both an homage to her, complete with references to a beloved friend of the protagonist named Kathy (as Rich was known), and her posthumous revenge.
It’s a great back story, and one that will surely get the book, which we named one of the best of the month of July, a lot of attention. And I’m particularly interested in this story because I knew Kathy Rich and knew about (though never met) the guy in question. I don’t think many of us met him, and those who did thought there was something very odd about him. That he turned out to be a lying, controlling creep was no surprise (even, in a weird way, to Kathy, I think); I find myself wondering if he’s aware of this book and just how it feels to see how your girlfriend’s friends gleefully fantasize about the horrible, vicious way they’d have you die. (I’m not spoiling anything by saying he’s mauled by dogs, since that happens in the very first chapter.) But then, creeps like this never see themselves clearly even if they always think the song is about them. Anyway, never mind: one of the things that makes this book so engaging is that its heart is not so much the guy, or even the dogs (though there’s a lot about the dogs, whom the authors clearly love) but the woman herself. Morgan Prager is an example of Hempel and Ciment’s brilliant channeling of our friend Kathy: she has her intelligence her wit and her loopy spirit. She’s also dogged and courageous, just like Kathy.
But you don’t have to have known Kathy Rich, or even the backstory, to appreciate this book, which is a smart, witty and sophisticated thriller all on its own. (Watch for riffing on another famous deliciously devious narrative about love and power…) It’s written by two people, yes – and that often doesn’t bode well for the construction of a seamless novel. But here it works: Ciment and Hempel didn’t alternate chapters, but wrote the book together, either in person or through Google docs; it reads with one voice. And by introducing dogs, dog training and the heroine’s background in forensics (which apparently, is also Hempel’s), the twisty plot and oddball characters make sense. You’ll recognize them, but they’ll still keep you guessing. I can just hear Kathy nodding and laughing at its twists and turns. I think you will, too.
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