HOW CAN I HELP YOU?
Penguin (July 18, 2023)
Reviewed by Carson Buckingham
I love books about books and libraries, so when I saw How Can I Help You? I snapped it up, eager to add it to my collection. The description made it sound deliciously sinister, and I couldn’t wait to read it.
Well, it began well enough, with a woman who was formerly a serial killer “Angel of Death” nurse called Jane Rivers who, after killing about 80 patients, got away after a close call and reinvented herself as Margo Finch, becoming a librarian in a small town far away from her old life. So immediately, I had to sit back and wonder about that. Most libraries require some kind of degree in Library Science to work there, unless one is volunteering. Not only was Margo hired on the spot, but evidently there was absolutely no background check done on her, which was hard to believe. Just based on the fact that there are often children in libraries, one would think a background check would be mandatory for sexual offender screening alone. Of course, if one had been done, they wouldn’t have found information on her anywhere. Instead, they just took her word for everything.
Margo has been working at the circulation desk for two years when Patricia comes on board as the new reference librarian, and much is made of her degree and library experience. She is a failed writer who has chucked it all after her first book was rejected repeatedly, and has joined the library as a form of weird penance for her failure. She doesn’t want to be there. But she does recapture her interest in writing in a rather perverted way.
This is a character-driven novel written in the first person from the alternating points of view of Margo and Patricia, and I found that, as a result, rather than drawing me in and engaging me, it left me distanced—on the outside, looking in. This is a danger with this sort of writing technique. And though it gets off to a good start, it gets dull rather quickly, with an ending that is a predictable yawner that felt really rushed.
There is almost no character development in How Can I Help You?, which makes the characters uninteresting. Not only do the characters not learn and grow, they act implausibly, or fail to act at all, even when faced with potentially life-threatening situations, which only leaves the reader with unanswered questions… the biggest one being ‘why?’ Even the ancillary characters are slow on the uptake—really, nobody is quite that dense. There were plenty of obvious reasons for suspicion, but nobody took a really hard look at them and acted on them with the urgency that was required. Unlike the obtuse detective, I had things figured out very early on.
If you like a plotless extravaganza featuring obsessed, lunatic, supremely unlikeable women, this book is for you.
Do not recommend.