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Beautiful Bad


Beautiful Bad

Already being called one of the most explosive thrillers of 2019, Annie Ward’s BEAUTIFUL BAD combines volatile settings, painful secrets and shocking violence for a gripping read that will keep readers on the edge of their seats right from the first page.

When we meet Maddie, it is 12 weeks before The Day of the Killing. Like so many of us with an internet connection, she is filling out a questionnaire that supposedly will confirm whether or not she should be seeing a therapist. But Maddie is distracted by her husband, Ian, and it is clear that she does not want him to see what she is looking at. As she ticks off the boxes and answers the questions, her anxiety and paranoia leap off the page as Ward forces her readers to consider what has happened between Maddie and Ian to make her so afraid.

BEAUTIFUL BAD then jumps to the scene of a grisly crime and a harrowing 911 call in Meadowlark, Kansas, a setting that starkly contrasts the terror of the moment. As an investigator arrives at the upscale neighborhood where the call came from, she scoffs at the opulence and decides that nothing too terrible could have happened --- until she peers through the window of one of the larger houses and sees a pair of giant black boots next to a glittering pool of blood.

"This is one thriller where I can truly say I could not have predicted the ending, and I feel certain that I will reread select passages so I can fully appreciate Ward’s choreography at work."

From this point on, BEAUTIFUL BAD alternates between past and present, often crossing continents and cities to paint a full picture of Maddie and Ian’s relationship. The two meet in the early 2000s, when Maddie is overseas in the Balkans with her best friend, Joanna. Maddie is in Bulgaria working as a travel journalist, while Joanna is stationed in the far more volatile Macedonia, where she works with women and children refugees. One night, Maddie makes the dangerous journey to visit Joanna to attend a Red Cross fundraiser with her; it is here that they meet British soldier Ian. Tall, dark and handsome, Ian seems like the perfect target for both single young ladies, but it is initially Joanna who captures his fancy. Maddie is suitably jealous, but with the wine flowing and plenty of available young men around, their friendship suffers no real hits.

When Maddie visits Joanna again, though, something has changed. Joanna is cagey and wants nothing to do with Ian or his comrades. Young and naïve, Maddie is more or less oblivious to the change and thinks only of seeing Ian again. When she does, the fallout between her and Joanna is as explosive as the landscape around them --- bombings and massacres are becoming more and more frequent, and the whole world seems to be on edge. The tension only serves to make Maddie’s attraction to Ian all the more alluring, but when the attacks of September 11th occur, the two are pushed apart, and Joanna resurfaces in Maddie’s life as her only constant in the tumultuous Balkans.

Jumping forward to the near-present, we reunite with Maddie 10 weeks before The Day of the Killing. She has found an unusual, albeit competent, therapist in Cami J, a rhinestone-studded, yoga-pants-wearing older woman who treats her clients by asking them to write out answers to her questions. Although Maddie is hesitant to reveal any potentially damaging details, she soon explains that she was recently involved in an accident that left her face bludgeoned and scarred. All she remembers is that she and Ian were camping and drinking wine when she went off to use the bathroom and came back covered in blood. Ian claims that she fell and hit her head on a branch, but the doctors and police remain firm in their assessment that her wounds could not have come from a simple fall, and instead were the result of blunt-force trauma.

As Maddie continues to see Cami J, we are given a full portrait of her relationship with and marriage to Ian: the sweet highlights, like visits in England and their beautiful son, and the disturbing idiosyncrasies, such as Ian building a secret panic room in the basement and teaching their son where to shoot to kill. PTSD seems like the likeliest cause for Ian’s concerning behaviors, but is he truly deranged enough to have killed Maddie? And if not, whose blood is it that the investigator sees through the window of their beautiful home? Through careful, slow-burn pacing and expertly timed dramatic reveals, Ward details the true events of The Day of the Killing and how a beautiful couple can turn so bad so quickly.

It is easy to see why BEAUTIFUL BAD is being heralded as one of the best thrillers of the year, but what sets Ward’s debut apart is her unique and worldly settings, and her thrill-seeking characters. I am sure there exist books set in the Balkans just before and around 9/11, but Ward’s focus on such youthful, exuberant characters with their own flaws and mistakes feels particularly original and fresh. I loved seeing the ways that Maddie, Ian and Joanna each sought out thrills and risks --- by crossing borders, meeting strangers and simply living. At the same time, the friendship between Maddie and Joanna is just dramatic enough to feel real, without any of the frills and bells lesser authors might employ. The contrast between their youth and the versions of them that we meet in the weeks before The Day of the Killing is wickedly sharp and masterfully constructed. As much as BEAUTIFUL BAD is a story of a marriage gone wrong, it is also about the highs and lows of female friendships, and Ward makes some brilliant discoveries in this regard.

This is one thriller where I can truly say I could not have predicted the ending, and I feel certain that I will reread select passages so I can fully appreciate Ward’s choreography at work. That is how expertly plotted and smartly twisted it is. Whether you read for the settings, characters or pure thrill, BEAUTIFUL BAD is practically perfect on all counts, and a novel you will not want to miss.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 8, 2019

Beautiful Bad
by Annie Ward