Pardon Her Highball

A fast-paced thriller set in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Kaylie Jones Shannon Pepitone

“The Anger Meridian”
Kaylie Jones
Akashic Books, $15.95

When the doorbell rings at 3:30 in the morning, Merryn, the beleaguered heroine of Kaylie Jones’s new novel, “The Anger Meridian,” thinks it is her husband, coming home too drunk to get the door open.

We are not told anything about him, but Ms. Jones paints a picture of a marriage in a few succinct sentences. On Merryn’s palm there is an inked message in French, “Don’t tell him he drinks too much.” By the front door, on a small strip of masking tape, “Don’t ask him where he was.” There are others around the house. “Don’t bore him with talk about the child.” “Don’t forget to put his vodka in the freezer.” No more than that, but we know all we need to know. It is not her husband at the door, however, but the police, there to tell her that he has been killed in a car crash, together with a young woman, while engaged in activity best avoided while driving at high speed and drunk.

Not only was her unlamented husband abusive but it gradually emerges that he was up to his crooked neck in financial shenanigans that are going to bring panicked business partners, vicious money launderers, and the F.B.I. down on Merryn’s neck like a ton of very angry bricks.

Her only concern is to protect her bright but physically fragile 9-year-old daughter, Tenney, from the ensuing scandal. The only safe place she can think of is her mother’s house in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and within the hour they are on the road (and, yes, this is going to look suspicious to the F.B.I.) driving to Mexico.

All the thriller elements are in place as Merryn reaches their safe haven, a beautiful house high in the hills above the town, full of photos of her mother with famous people (though, oddly, not a single one of Merryn and Tenney). And here the fast-paced book really takes off, because the villain of the story is not going to be the drug dealers or the cops, it’s going to be Mom. And what a wonderful narcissistic, controlling, spiteful villain she is too, with her heavy drinking and her toy boy and her complete disregard for anyone but herself.

“I [Merryn] return to the Great Room to find Bibi storming around in a fury, a Bloody Mary in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She has changed out of her fancy suit and is wearing a lilac, terrycloth, Caribbean-cruise, one-piece pantsuit with a hoodie and crystal buttons.”

Oh dear. Rare indeed will be the reader prepared to give Bibi the benefit of the doubt after reading about that pantsuit. That she is indeed a villain is apparent to everyone else, including 9-year-old Tenney, but not to Merryn herself.

This is a hard one to pull off, because one is inclined to say, “Oh come on! You’d have to be blind not to see what a monster this woman is!” But I suspect anyone who has known emotional abuse as a child will recognize, with a sinking feeling, the willful denial and the it’s-all-my-fault syndrome. Someone needs to wake her up with the truth — but will it be in time?

Everything escalates, with all the separate threads coming together in what seems like a perfect storm of disaster for Merryn. A tale like this, where you have so many plotlines and characters, is a bit like skipping a stone across the surface of a pond. It must skip from event to event, character to character, without losing momentum. If it does, the stone sinks to the bottom of the pond and the reader dog-ears the page and decides to leave it for another day. No fear of that here. Ms. Jones has a masterly control of her story.

San Miguel is convincingly portrayed, and there are delightful subplots, one involving the rescue of a street dog and the other following Tenney’s prowess as a chess player and gradual return to health.

Ms. Jones, the daughter of the writer James Jones, is the author of a number of books, perhaps the best known of which, “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries,” was made into a Merchant-Ivory film. This latest book also cries out to be a movie, with the role of Bibi being a plum any older actress would die for, and it would all be filmed in San Miguel, and this reviewer could be an extra.

Sheridan Sansegundo, a former arts editor of The East Hampton Star, lives in San Miguel de Allende.

Kaylie Jones, once of Sagaponack, teaches in the M.F.A. program in creative writing and literature at Stony Brook Southampton.