Book Review: The Need by Helen Phillips

I didn’t mean to go on hiatus- but I actually haven’t done a whole lot of reading this week, and I sort of feel like a fraud.  I am bummed I missed this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, but I’m looking forward to checking out everyone else’s posts, and will probably do a similar post anyway.

Yesterday I received an ARC of The Need in the mail.  I read it all in two different sittings.  While I don’t know that it really had that ‘can’t put it down’ quality we all love, it was a really quick book with super short chapters that made it easy to keep reading.

The Need by Helen Phillips

Rating:  ★★★1/2

Blurb (from GoodReads): When Molly, home alone with her two young children, hears footsteps in the living room, she tries to convince herself it’s the sleep deprivation. She’s been hearing things these days. Startling at loud noises. Imagining the worst-case scenario. It’s what mothers do, she knows.

But then the footsteps come again, and she catches a glimpse of movement.

Suddenly Molly finds herself face-to-face with an intruder who knows far too much about her and her family. As she attempts to protect those she loves most, Molly must also acknowledge her own frailty. Molly slips down an existential rabbit hole where she must confront the dualities of motherhood: the ecstasy and the dread; the languor and the ferocity; the banality and the transcendence as the book hurtles toward a mind-bending conclusion.

I was intrigued by the genre here, and before reading I couldn’t decide if it would be more horror, more science fiction or thriller.  It’s not quite science-fiction, more speculative, and more thriller than horror.  It reminds me a lot of Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter.

Genre aside- the core of this book is about motherhood, and Phillips nails that part.  In some ways, while reading this, I was relieved to know I wasn’t alone and I wasn’t crazy.  My daughter is six, so a lot of the things Molly is going through I don’t have to cope with as often, but everything she endures is hauntingly, eerily familiar.  I felt like I could have written this book.  Kids will make you crazy, but your love for them will always trump all.

This book starts much stronger than it finishes.  I think, unfortunately the reveal for The Need comes far too early, and the end of the book stretches on a little too long.  I would have liked if there had been more suspense/mystery built into the plot, or if the MC had spent more time investigating what was going on instead of simply accepting what was happening to her.

Phillips does an excellent job of bringing the characters to life on the page.  Especially the kids who come out with some off the wall, nonsensical stuff (like ‘Can I lick your eye?’) that only four year olds can invent.  My one complaint with Molly would be that I really wasn’t sure the decisions she made felt reasonable or logical.  People all react differently to different things, of course, but there were some decisions she made that were mildly rage-inducing and made me want to shout at the page.  It was disappointing considering Phillips gets literally everything else right.

I did enjoy the writing.  The Need is definitely more literary than commercial, and while I wouldn’t describe it as lyrical, Phillips does some things with repetition and structure that feel hard hitting, if that makes any sense.

The ending is ambiguous.  Normally this is something I avoid, I don’t like ambiguous endings ever, but for some reason it works here.  I’m attributing it to the fast build-up of suspense and the slow unraveling of everything else, as well as the allegorical nature of the book.  It’s an ambiguous ending that I somehow understood perfectly, because the allegory makes a lot of sense to me.  

All in all- not a bad little book.  If you’re interested in this because Molly is a paleobotanist I’d skip it, that’s a very small part of the book.  Otherwise it’s a super quick read (258 pages) with fast, punchy chapters, that would make for a great lazy day beach read.

The Need releases in the US on July 9, 2019 from Simon & Schuster.  Thank you to the publisher for providing me with an ARC for review.  It can be found on GoodReads or pre-ordered on Amazon.

UPDATED:  **SPOILERS AHEAD**

This is my most viewed review on my blog, and I think readers are looking for a clarification to the ending.  So here’s my interpretation:

The book is a metaphor for motherhood.  How being a mother can almost split you into two people.  You love your kids.  You’d do anything for them, to help them, give them every opportunity.  Your kids are your life.

And then there are days when you really just think: “What the hell was I thinking becoming a mother?  I could be backpacking in Europe right now!  Drinking margaritas in Mexico!  Getting a full eight hours of sleep… EVERY NIGHT.  Doing pretty much anything aside from constantly cleaning the house, picking up toys, making food and snacks, cleaning up vomit, potty training….”

I am a mother, and I know, those first few years are hard.  So hard, they make you feel like you are losing your mind.  I don’t feel like I will ever get a full eight hours of sleep ever again.

So I took the ending to be the reconciling of those two Mollys, into one Molly.  (The Molly we start with does on occasion say she considered stepping back and letting the other Molly take over, that she was a better mother, etc.)  The time warp closed, the two Mollys became one, she accepted her motherhood-dom… I don’t know.  It doesn’t work if you are looking for a literal answer.

I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer for you.  I am one of the biggest haters of ambiguous endings, and this one is far from satisfactory (like many of you, I think I’d have preferred something less ambiguous).  But for some reason in this single instance, the metaphorical ending worked for me (and it’s probably because, let’s face it, no literal ending could have buttoned up this book nicely).

 

26 thoughts on “Book Review: The Need by Helen Phillips

  1. Welcome back! I haven’t heard much about this book so I’m glad you reviewed it. I actually love when authors are honest about what motherhood is really like, and that’s what this sounds like.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it might have also had a lot to do with the stakes at the end being relatively low. I really don’t like when a character’s life hangs in the balance and we’re not told… grr. That’s not this though. (Sorry hope that’s not too spoilery!)

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      • Well, okay, that makes sense. There’s really only one book that ends where you aren’t sure if the character lived or died and I thought the ambiguity of the book was perfect. (It’s an old book now, so is it still a spoiler? It was The Giver, and the sequels made it clear that the author intended the character to live. I still liked it best as a question, though.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Haha- I’ve actually never read the giver, but it’s probably a good thing because that ending would make me crazy! I’ve read a few like that in the past couple years and they usually end up as 1/2 Star reads for me, because I get so mad at the ending lol.

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      • LOL, fair! I read The Giver within the past year because I want to read a lot more of the Newbery Award winners and I’d never read that one before. I actually really liked the uncertainty of that book’s ending, but it’s certainly not for everyone.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The ‘reminds me of Dark Matter’ bit had me me hooked. Shame about the ending not being as strong. Certainly like the sound of the blurb.

    Currently reading One Word Kill. Saw it as the daily deal on kindle and remembered a brief convo on here with you about it. Something about first person narrative just feels addictive to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is definitely quick! And for the time investment it’s really not a bad read. I liked that the chapters were so quick. There were probably 80 or so chapters in a 258 page book so that should tell you something.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you – I just read the last paragraph and was scouring the internet looking for answers. Your interpretation makes sense to me (and was also the only thing I could find – so thank you for posting and helping me cling to sanity!)

    I understand why she withheld a nice ending tied up with string, but some kind of conclusion would have been nice!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: Year in Review: 2019 Wrap Up | Hamlets & Hyperspace

  5. I thought this was a case of paranoia or personality disorder. That moll was the alter ego of the mother she wished she could be. She made several points of shared sensations and thoughts. Of lost time “sleeping” almost unwillingly at points. At the very least i think it would be a more relateable concept than that of a dimensional seam. That all of these were delusions of paranoia amplefied by the guilt she struggled with from mistakes in day to day life and motherhood. Especially given her mentions of dilusions, the elk queen, etc. I love love loveeeee her writing, but felt robbed. To go that far and miss it by that much….just seems kind of sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a great interpretation! I completely understand where you are coming from and agree it’s frustrating to be that good and then not go all the way. Thanks for leaving a comment. I wish others would let me know how they felt about it. It’s an ending that definitely needs discussion.

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