“A Good Enough Mother” is Bev Thomas’s debut suspense novel; for 25 years, she worked as a clinical psychologist in Britain’s National Health Service (NHS). Thomas’s firsthand experience with the slow tidal dynamics of talk therapy gives this tale its sense of authenticity, and indeed, much of its plot structure. Thomas’s background also accounts for her thriller’s title: The “good enough” mother is a term first used by the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who maintained that children develop a stronger sense of self when their mothers set boundaries and fail them in tolerable ways. Thomas’s main character, Dr. Ruth Hartland, is the director of a London NHS trauma unit. Astute and compassionate, she’s the best boss and best therapist imaginable, but in her own harsh estimation, Ruth has not been a good — or good enough — mother.
Ruth tells us in her retrospective and regretful narration that her own son, Tom, was bedeviled by social anxiety and depression. He ran off from home when he was 17 and hasn’t been heard from in two years. As a young mother, Ruth was fixated on Tom and his struggles; now, understandably, she’s fixated on his absence, trawling “Missing Persons” sites online in her spare time. Ruth’s daughter, who always felt emotionally shortchanged, has left England for Australia. The stress of dealing with Tom’s difficulties caused Ruth and her husband to divorce, and Ruth barely maintains a brittle relationship with her own mother, a narcissist who’s now raging away in a nursing home. In all, it’s fortunate for Ruth that professional conduct dictates that her clients should know nothing about her own messy personal life.
Every work day, Ruth settles into her therapist’s chair and skillfully ministers to the severely traumatized clients assigned to her — a college student who survived a shooting at his school; a teenage girl guilt-stricken that she was in the midst of an argument with her mother seconds before her mother was fatally struck by a car. One fateful day, however, Ruth walks into the waiting room to meet a new client, and time stops:
“He’s grown his hair long again,” she observes of the young man. “One of the last times I saw him, he’d hacked it off completely, leaving long golden curls in the bathroom sink that made me want to weep. . . . Tom, here you are, is what I think, or perhaps I say out loud.”
Ruth breaks out into a run, and as she passes him, the new patient looks up: It’s not Tom.
The new patient is a young man named Dan Griffin. He’s endured a gruesome sexual assault and, long before that, a childhood deprived of maternal affection. The work of therapy begins, with Ruth accompanying Dan as he edges closer to “the dark lake” of his horrific memories and anger. From the very outset of treatment, however, Dan inappropriately pushes boundaries: He shows up at Ruth’s office quite early for a session, and he demands more sessions with her than the NHS allows. In every instance, Ruth uncharacteristically caves. After all, Dan reminds her so much of Tom that Ruth begins to fuzzily view their relationship as a second chance to better mother her lost son.
Then, Dan turns up at Ruth’s house one night, bleeding and upset. Freud — and Winnicott — surely would have advised locking the door on such an out-of-control patient and keeping therapeutic boundaries in place. But Ruth’s yearning overrides her professional judgment, and she throws professional protocol — and personal safety — to the wind.
Thomas plots her twists and turns so ingeniously (with a slippery scattering of red herrings) that even veteran suspense readers will be floored. For all its narrative inventiveness, however, the greatest appeal of “A Good Enough Mother” is its sharp rendering of the “active listening” that goes on in Ruth’s therapy sessions and supervisory meetings with colleagues. These conversations typically unfold haltingly over several pages, and when psychological breakthroughs occur, they’re every bit as startling as the thriller revelations. In one of those sessions, a young colleague expresses surprise to hear that Ruth herself has a supervisor:
“Everyone needs supervision,” Ruth tells her. “The unconscious is not available to us. Things are hidden. We can’t see what’s in front of us.”
That’s a bedrock tenet, not only of psychology, but also of mystery and suspense fiction. In “A Good Enough Mother,” Thomas joins the ranks of first-rate masters of misdirection who delight in artfully distracting us readers from the terrible truths planted right before our eyes.
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program Fresh Air, teaches literature at Georgetown University.
A GOOD ENOUGH MOTHER
By Bev Thomas
Pamela Dorman/Viking. 338 pp. $26