Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, suspense, thriller
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks on September 1, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
The gentrification of a Brooklyn neighborhood takes on a sinister new meaning…
Sydney Green is Brooklyn born and raised, but her beloved neighborhood seems to change every time she blinks. Condos are sprouting like weeds, FOR SALE signs are popping up overnight, and the neighbors she’s known all her life are disappearing. To hold onto her community’s past and present, Sydney channels her frustration into a walking tour and finds an unlikely and unwanted assistant in one of the new arrivals to the block—her neighbor Theo.
But Sydney and Theo’s deep dive into history quickly becomes a dizzying descent into paranoia and fear. Their neighbors may not have moved to the suburbs after all, and the push to revitalize the community may be more deadly than advertised.
When does coincidence become conspiracy? Where do people go when gentrification pushes them out? Can Sydney and Theo trust each other—or themselves—long enough to find out before they too disappear?
This is a bit of a three-legged race of a book. There are three threads to this story, all heading towards an ending, but one is going slow like a Model T, one is speeding along like it’s racing for NASCAR, and one is tootling along in a clown car.
Except that none of this story is funny.
But seriously, there are three separate plot threads to this story. While they are all heading towards the same finish, they are not racing at the same pace or with nearly the same amount of success.
When the story begins it looks kind of like we’re at the beginning of a (very) slow burn romance between Sydney and Theo, when Theo and his about-to-be-ex-girlfriend move in across the street from Sydney in the Brooklyn neighborhood where she grew up.
Both of their lives are in turmoil. Theo because of the impending breakup, but Sydney because well, shit has happened to her and it just keeps happening. Her marriage failed, her ex was emotionally abusive and wrecked her self-esteem, she’s unemployed, her mother was scammed out of her house and Sydney’s trying to get it back AND she’s trying to pay off back taxes and huge medical bills for both of them.
In the middle of their intersecting and imploding lives – drops the second thread about the consequences of gentrification for the people who live in the area being gentrified. A euphemism that usually means moving the brown people and the marginalized people OUT by fair means or foul, mostly foul, so that the white people can move IN.
Sydney is creating a walking tour of the neighborhood for an upcoming holiday celebration, and Theo gets recruited as her research assistant. The history that they uncover is well and truly appalling and it’s hard not to see it happening all around them as they are watching and researching, because Theo’s soon-to-be-ex is right in the thick of it.
But then there’s the depth of the evil that is behind this particular wave of gentrification, and is hinted at having been behind many if not most of the previous waves. And there’s the clown car rolling in.
Not that they aren’t truly evil, because they are. But because once Sydney and Theo find their way to the center of this particular tentacle of the long-running conspiracy it seems to be run by folks who learned how to be evil from comic book villains.
They’ve been successful not because they’re intelligent, but because so many people are complicit and so few seem to have chosen to stand and fight. They represent both the mediocrity of evil and and a perfect example of the old adage about the only thing required for evil to flourish is for good people to do nothing.
Which may make this book the perfect thing to encapsulate recent events in the U.S. but caused it to fall a bit flat at the end.
Escape Rating B-: The history that underpins this story is absolutely fascinating. And it was great to see a book that managed to give the evils of gentrification not just a human face, but to make it comprehensible without becoming either a history text, an info dump, or just a boring lecture.
The way that the gentrification subplot wove into both of the other parts of the story was the best part of this book.
The romance, on the other hand, was a slow burn that didn’t really need to burn at all. I’m not sure I bought the chemistry between Sydney and Theo, and both of them were rebounding from such shitty relationships – and somewhat the same kind of shitty – that I wasn’t left with any real hope of even much of a happy for now.
And both of them were such unreliable narrators of their own lives that I’m left wondering if there really was anything there but sex and desperation – and whether or not there should have been. The first 100 pages of the book are a complete downer as both of their lives just seem to be spiraling towards the drain at an increasing rate of speed.
The thriller part of this story, discovering that this particular act of replacement, removal and rebuilding, or break and build as the book puts it, was a mixed bag. On the one hand, once that part of the story finally gets going it really gets going. The final 50+ pages move along like gangbusters.
Or like a first-person shooter type of video game. The pace is fast, the bodies are falling, the discoveries are horrific and the heroes barely manage to survive the boss battle at the end.
The problem was that the bosses we saw, the people behind it all, read like comic book villains. It felt like they succeeded in spite of their incompetence and not because of their competence. They succeeded up until that point because “the system” is set up for them to succeed.
Which may be the most evil thing of all. But it didn’t make for the best story, which was a disappointment because this was a book I really wanted to love and just didn’t.
Reviewer’s Note: I think I read the books in the wrong order this week. Because the “happy, happy, joy, joy” reaction I’m having post-Inauguration makes it difficult to get into a thriller that gets pretty dark but doesn’t get there half as successfully as I expected. It’s definitely making me wonder how books written during the mess of the last four years and especially during the pandemic are going to fare once we get further down the road to normal.
Although that journey feels like it’s already begun, leading to my fit of exuberance.
2 thoughts on “Review: When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole”
This is disappointing. I’ve had this book on my wish list before it came out, and was excited to pick it up on sale recently. I almost started it yesterday, but went with something else instead. I’ve been struggling enough with lackluster books–and my own inability to focus– recently to take this on right now.
Some people really love this one. It just didn’t gel for me for reasons that I think only partly have to do with an inability to concentrate. I’m not sorry I read it, but I hoped for so much more than I actually got.
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