“I had reserved a suite in the finest hotel in downtown Columbus, with views of the river sparkling below. We’d been dating a couple of months by then and I’d waited as long as any man could be expected to. Mia was nervous, uncomfortably sitting on the edge of the red-and-white-striped upholstered chair, gripping her champagne flute like a weapon she’d use for protection. She wore a light blue dress that matched her eyes. The dress slipped easily over her head once I’d pulled her to me, asked her to dance. The memories of that night are vivid. It took me until the sun was coming up to convince her to go all the way. She worried about the promise she’d made to her mother. I told her if a tree falls in the forest but no one is around to hear it, then did it really fall? She laughed and I slid on top of her, pinning her arms gently above her head, pressing my mouth firmly against hers. And, she fell.”
Doesn’t that paragraph make your skin crawl? Though there’s the trappings of romance (the champagne, the luxurious hotel suite, “the light blue dress that matched her eyes”), this is an Aziz Ansari horror show. Paul must have wheedled for hours, begging, imploring, daring Mia to “go all the way” until he finally “slid on top of her, pinning her arms.”
Throughout BEST DAY EVER, Rouda displays a refreshing amount of trust in her readers. The curious thing about the passage above (and the rest of the Rouda’s novel, for that matter) is that we never get to see this scene from Mia’s point of view—which one imagines would paint a much-different picture of that evening. Though dueling narratives (think: GONE GIRL) have become de rigueur nowadays in psychological thrillers, BEST DAY EVER is told almost entirely from Paul’s point-of-view. There’s just enough detail there for readers to intuit how exasperating the encounter was for Mia—and yet, not so much detail to make readers throw down the book in horror.
I could easily imagine another, less trusting, writer putting together an over-the-top ham-fisted depiction of that scene. A scene that would read with the same level of detail as found in babe’s initial Aziz Ansari report. While such a depiction would certainly shock every reader, I’d have a hard time imagining it succeeding in the novel that Rouda has constructed.
Despite Paul’s boorish, belittling behavior, there are still moments where one suspects that he is genuine in his desire to reconcile with Mia. He’s planned the entire trip to be “the best day ever.” Several times, he alludes to a special gift that he intends to give Mia. And one feels sorry for the two of them, Paul and Mia, because, as Paul says, “We haven’t had a weekend together, just the two of us alone, for more than a year.”
Because there’s no early, over-the-top effort to depict Paul as an absolute monster, readers are willing to embrace the set-up.
Lest you think BEST DAY EVER is a somber novel about sexual assault, or a #MeToo polemic, it’s not. Paul’s no woke dude, and his treatment of women is only part of his problem.
And yet, as Kathyrn Craft blurbs, BEST DAY EVER “may well be the most entertaining read of the year.”
Watching Paul operate—and he’s one helluva player—is intoxicating. Self-aggrandizing and belittling towards others, he’s a prevaricator and manipulator of near-Trumpian proportions. He’s so petty that he takes personal satisfaction that Columbus (where he lives) is the only Ohio city shown on international weather maps—“Our weather matters more than Cleveland’s or Cincinnati’s does.” He’s vindictive. And unconcerned about others’ thoughts and emotions. Back when he owned a sports car, he evaluated women by whether they’d look “fabulous” sitting beside him in that car. He’s the proverbial elephant in a china shop, charging over everyone to get what he wants.
We sympathize with Mia, Paul’s disgruntled, brow-beaten wife. Not only does she have to put up with Paul, but she’s also suffering from an undefined ailment that no doctor can cure. She’s given up her job at Paul’s request to be a stay-at-home mom to their children.
The novel begins with Paul and Mia about to go on a much-needed getaway weekend to their lakeside cottage. All is not right with their marriage. The weekend is meant to be a reconciliation of sorts, a chance for them to reconnect.
BEST DAY EVER works, in part, because Mia seems so oblivious to Paul’s faults. But how much she knows is a delicate question. As readers, we’re conscious that we only see her through Paul’s eyes. He’s incapable of picking up on the subtle and not-so-subtle clues people give off that they find him offensive. And because he routinely under-reports whatever does not paint him in the best possible light, he’s an unreliable narrator; the world that Paul relays to us is not necessarily an unvarnished picture of that world.
As they drive, it becomes increasingly obvious that Mia’s caught on to at least some of Paul’s deceits, and yet, we’re taken by Paul’s brash confidence, his belief that he can wriggle out of any jam by sheer chutzpah. He flashes Mia “my biggest rectangular grin, adding signature wink... It’s the smile that launched a thousand new accounts for the advertising agency—until it didn’t.”
Until it didn’t?
Yep, things are falling apart in Paul’s world. His bad choices appear to be catching up on him. Mia pesters him about their overdrawn credit cards. Their babysitter phones, saying the credit card she was given to buy food for their two little boys while the Stroms are away has been declined at the local market. Paul swears he’ll transfer money immediately into their credit card account—but he never does.
Money worries are just one of the driving tensions. Mia announces she’s accepted an offer to go back to work, part time, for the man who Paul back-stabbed to earn a recent promotion.
Out of nowhere, Mia asks about a young woman in Paul’s office. “So how is Caroline these days? Still flirting with you?”
This mention of another woman immediately piques our interest. Paul’s just the kind of paunchy middle-aged married man we can imagine hitting the women he supervises.
“‘No, not anymore,” [Paul says], speaking slowly to find the right words. ‘She’s young. It’s her first job. She just didn’t know what is appropriate and what isn’t, that’s all.’”
The background worries and money problems heat up as we weave through the pages, becoming a slow boil in this cauldron of a novel. Paul’s almost out of cash. Former friends and family members now regard him as pond scum. Paul thinks their babysitter is on drugs. Paul and Mia go to dinner at a fancy restaurant, where the waiter tenses up at the sight of Paul.
A delicious anticipation swept over me as I read the last half of the novel. Who doesn’t relish the possibility of a prick getting the comeuppance he deserves? There can only be two possible outcomes to this novel: either Paul’s past misdeeds will finally catch up to him, destroying him. Or will he somehow weasel out of his jam? Either way, I knew the results would be entertaining.
As Kate Moretti, author of the best-selling THE VANISHING YEAR (which, co-incidentally, is next up on my to-read list) blurbs, “Kaira Rouda’s BEST DAY EVER is a breath of fresh air. Paul Strom’s narrative voice is irreverent, arrogant, and yet, utterly addicting. You’ll whip through the pages. Highly entertaining and truly surprising!”
I, for one, couldn’t agree more.
In the past, I’ve been lucky to interview several psychological thriller writers (including Mary Kubica, Lisa Jewell, and Anna Snoestra). Kaira Rouda has kindly consented to answer a few questions via email about her novel, BEST DAY EVER.
Question: BEST DAY EVER works in large part because it’s told through the unreliable eyes of Paul Strom, a narcissistic egotist. From the opening pages, we sense he’s a slimy charmer, a snake oil salesmen. He is, shall we say, unlikeable.
My question is, did you ever worry he’d be too unlikeable? That he’d repel readers to such an extent that they’d abandon the book, unable to stomach him? Were there times you had to dial back his most egregious thoughts, his nastiest actions?
Ha! That’s a great question. No, I didn’t worry about that because Paul is who he is. That said, he does trigger some readers and they do abandon the story, often leaving a bad review. It’s unfortunate because from the blurbs to the synopsis, it’s pretty clear what you’re going to get with Paul. If you’re uncomfortable reading from a narcissists POV, this probably isn’t the book for you.
Question: Ages ago, in some beginning writers workshop, I was cautioned not to let my characters be too good or too bad, that every character should be “complex,” filled with a combination of redeeming and reprehensible qualities. I’ve now read BEST DAY EVER twice. During my second reading, I tried my darnedest to find shades of good in Paul Strom, some redeeming quality that might open him to my sympathy. Perhaps I’m not a good enough reader, but I couldn’t find any. He’s selfish, egotistical, and vain, cruel and vindictive. Were you ever tempted to place some small degree of goodness in Paul Strom’s heart?
I hope you feel a little sorry for Paul because of his upbringing. But you can’t blame the parents for the monster he’s become. He has a good sense of humor, but that’s about the only redeeming quality. When you create a reprehensible character he does need to be balanced by the good characters in the story, in my opinion, so the reader can find redemption somewhere. Hopefully, that’s what works with BEST DAY EVER. Thank you for reading it twice, by the way!
Question: Years ago, a writer told me about one of his failed novels. He had made the critical mistake of allowing his first-person narrator to be too stupid to really understand much of what was going on around him, thus limiting the depth of observation the writer could credibly make through that narrator.
Paul Strom is not exactly stupid. However, his emotional intelligence is limited and his ability to empathize with others’ plights is non-existent. He’s observant—but his observations all reflect back on him.
How challenging was it to set Paul Strom up as the readers’ eye into the world of your novel? Were you were tempted to allow other characters narrate a chapter or two? Besides the use of direct dialogue to explain their thoughts, what other means did you employ to give readers a more credible understanding of scenes and situations than Paul was able to provide?
Paul came into my subconscious fully formed and would never allow another character to have a say in what was his story. Besides direct dialog, I hope Mia’s actions, although subtle, revealed a woman who was far stronger than she appeared to her husband. I also liked the use of the zodiac signs.
Question: This is along the same lines as the previous question-- after about 75 pages, Paul and Mia step into Sloopy’s, a pizza joint in their vacation community. Their high school-aged waitress has “hot-pink stripes streak[ing] through her long brown hair.. a tattoo circling her right wrist and a shiny round nose ring in her left nostril.” Paul, whose fossilized notions of feminine comportment and permissible dress seem drawn from a 1950s sitcom, recoils at the sight of her, pronouncing her “scary.”
Once the waitress leaves their table, Mia says,
“I don’t think she’s scary, Paul. [She’s j]ust finding her identity. She’s portraying her individualism through outward expressions, like tattoos and unique hair color. I wish I had been bold enough to do that in high school, or, well, ever.”
For me, this moment of personal introspection and revelation provided the first real insight or connection in to Mia’s character. Up until this point, we’d seen her solely through Paul’s eyes; though she previously questioned him about his dietary choices and their overdrawn credit cards, and seemed capable of holding a grudge, she’d previously not really indicated much of a personality. Although my sympathies were already tilted towards her (how could they not? Anyone married to a sociopath like Paul deserves all our sympathies!), I went into overdrive thinking about her from that moment on.
Was it hard keeping Mia in the background for so long? Did you ever, as a writer, feel her crying out for more attention on the page? Did editors or beta readers ever suggest expanding earlier about her wants and desires?
Mia knew she had too much to lose by revealing herself. It was tricky trying to allow her to have small victories, like the one you noticed at Sloopy’s, but still keeping Paul in the dark about her true intentions. It was flipping the psychological suspense story a bit on its head. Typically we hear mostly from the “victim”, don’t we?
Question: BEST DAY EVER builds in a slow boil. The novel ostensibly begins with Paul and Mia’s preparations to spend a weekend at their lakeside cottage for a much-needed weekend of relaxation and reconciliation. We sense that all is not entirely right within their marriage, but there’s no dead bodies to alarm us, no tear-filled admissions of infidelities, no hint of criminal neglect. And yet, as the dust jacket suggests, BEST DAY EVER is a “gripping, tautly suspenseful tale of deception and betrayal.”
I loved how your novel unspooled slowly, letting us see and suspect Paul’s deceptions and betrayals rather than have them pushed in our faces. There’s nothing subtle about Paul, yet, in many ways, this is a subtle novel.
Was it hard to maintain a subtle narrative with such an egregiously over-the-top narrator like Paul?
I really had fun writing this story, probably the most fun I’ve ever had. Thanks for noticing! The fun was balancing the pace of the story with his over the top behavior and opinions. I loved forcing the two of them to be in the car together for the drive to the lake. Hopefully you could sense the tension even as he is distracting you, or trying to, with his wit and opinion of himself.
Keeping the characters uncomfortably close helped me. In the car. At the restaurants. In the cottage. Close quarters breeds tension if your characters are at war. Even if it’s a subtle, domestic war. I mean, Mia is trapped with a monster.
Question: No one, of course, wants to saddle a narrative with tons of back story, which can slow down whatever narrative momentum you’ve managed to establish in a novel. And yet, back story is necessary in order to provide context to the story.
One thing that really struck me about BEST DAY EVER is how effortlessly you wove the back story into the narrative. Although the novel is portrays a single continuous day (each chapter is headed with a time-stamp), there’s really a lot of back story crammed into the forward momentum.
Often, it’s just a single sentence that boomerangs us back into back story. For example, at the end of a paragraph about childcare, Paul adds,
“This is what we talked about, what we agreed to, even on our very first date.”
And then we’re jettisoned into a great 3-page description of that “very first date” before being brought back into the present. It’s really quite masterful.
What guidance or suggestions can you offer about the use of back story in a novel?
Thank you! Weaving backstory in has been something I’ve worked on. Thank you for noticing. I think the key is it has to have a point and action, even though it’s backstory it needs to be its own scene.
Question: Late in the novel, a third principle character emerges, who confronts Paul with a fairly concise appraisal of Paul’s mental health. “[You’re a] classic malignant narcissist, possible psychopath... You have no conscience, have a psychological need for power and control and you think you are more important than anyone else.”
Did you read a lot of background literature and articles about these disorders and conditions before feeling you could write about Paul? Over the last couple of years, there’s been a fair amount of public discussion about these conditions and disorders. Some writers tend to over-research medical and psychological aspects like this. For you, how much research is enough? Do you worry that, say, a clinically-trained psychologist might take exception to the way you write about Paul’s condition?
I have a great friend who is a psychologist and she loved how I wrote Paul. Otherwise, in life, I’ve had a string of really bad male bosses. I like to thank them for my real-life research.
Question: My last question is something that I’ve asked other writers as well-- Beyond providing a gripping and electrifying read, what else do you wish your readers walk away with when they finish one of your novels?
KAIRA ROUDA: The desire to read another one of my novels. Ha. Seriously, that they learned something about the world or themselves and found at least one sentence to make them smile.
There’s a lot packed into this interview about character formation, and I particularly enjoyed Rouda’s observation on how keeping characters in confined spaces helps to ratchet up a novel’s tension.
She’s also astute in observing that most psychological thrillers are tilted toward the victim’s point of view. BEST DAY EVER runs against the grain, which is one of the many reasons it excites.
Thank you, Kaira!
While putting together this interview, I learned that Kaira Rouda’s husband, Harley Rouda, is running for Congress against Dana Rohrabacher, the longstanding GOP Congressman who’s often accused of being inappropriately friendly to the Russian Kremlin. If you wish to learn more about Harley Rouda’s campaign, please click here.