Beautiful Bad is a taut, tightly plotted psychological thriller. The story begins with a murder. We don’t who the killer or the victim are; all we see is a police officer entering a house with blood-stained floors and a crying child. From that arresting opening, Ward hurtles us back years into the past, where a pair of best friends Maddie and Jo meet and fall in love with the same British soldier, Ian. Through flashbacks, we learn that Maddie and Ian end up getting married and having a son, that a camping accident has left Maddie physically and psychologically scarred, and that through therapy, Maddie reveals fears about Ian’s PTSD and concerns for their son’s safety.
Ward doles out her clues judiciously throughout the story. The questions about who had been killed, who had done the killing and why remain a mystery pretty much till the end of the book, but the murder itself sets a grim tone throughout all the flashbacks. Even when Maddie and Jo first meet Ian and fall in love, we know things are not going to end well. Darkness permeates even the most innocuous interactions, and at almost every step, we want to tell the characters to turn back before it’s too late.
I love that Ward doesn’t present the romance between the lead characters as idyllic at the beginning, then turning bad later on. Rather, even at the beginning of the flashbacks, we can see the emotional turmoil in each of the main characters, such that we can imagine any of them being capable of murder. The big reveal, when it came, was unexpected to me until fairly late in the novel, but the clues were peppered fairly heavily throughout, and I love how everything tied together at the end.
The one snag for me is that I found it difficult to understand what attracted both Maddie and Jo to Ian in the first place, beyond his good looks. He was charming, but he didn’t treat either woman very well from the beginning, especially considering that he knew of their friendship and their attraction to him. I realize that most of the flashbacks are told from Maddie’s perspective, and therefore coloured by later events, so in that sense, I’m glad the author kept it realistic. I also understand how a woman can get sucked into a relationship with a man she later on fears, but is unable to leave. But with this story, I couldn’t quite understand Ian’s appeal, or why either woman would get sucked into a relationship with him in the first place. The author does a great job of building up Jo and Maddie’s friendship, which makes their decision to risk their relationship over Ian even more baffling.
Fun fact: I had the opportunity to see the author speak about this book at a Harper Collins Canada event last year, and she said the love triangle aspect of the story was actually based on real life. She did end up marrying a man whom her best friend had been in love with. The real life stories played out much more happily than the novel’s — her husband was her sounding board while she wrote the novel, and her best friend was also really supportive.
Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.