Christopher Rice, author of The Vines, reviews Suzanne Munshower's new mystery Younger.
Suzanne Munshower's novel YOUNGER doesn't just blend genres. It defies their restrictions, and in the process it delivers an unvarnished depiction of our culture's punishing treatment of women who've had the temerity to age past forty-five. Older heroines like Anna Wallingham, the veteran PR pro at the center of YOUNGER, are no strangers to popular fiction. Constantly in danger of being edged out by younger, prettier models in most areas of their lives, they're often depicted through a series of lonely nights spent wondering what might have been with former, lost loves if certain words hadn't been said in anger. But these characters usually come to us by way of saucy romantic comedies, where sarcastic humor acts a lubricant when the unpleasant truths about aging become too hard to swallow dry. Or they're featured in romance novels in which a happily-ever-after is guaranteed from the outset, and the book's packaging makes this comfortably clear. Or they're relegated to the category of "wise matron" in both of those genres, largely unconcerned with the day to day flow of their own settled lifestyles, working tirelessly to marry off their daughters or younger sisters while occasionally making sport of their obviously advancing years.YOUNGER is neither a romantic comedy nor a romance, although it's laced with effective strains of the later genre. Mystery and thriller are the words that come closest to describing it, but the heroine isn't rushing to stop a doomsday clock or rescue her kidnapped children. She's rushing to save herself, first from a youth-obsessed L.A. culture that pathologizes wisdom and turns life experience into a liability, then from a diabolical plot to avert the aging process itself.
When we first meet her, experienced fifty something publicist Anna Wallingham has just been fired. Worse, she's been fired for doing a good job. It doesn't matter that her latest client is more than happy with her work. For years Anna's industry has been beauty and now she's reached that age where the products sold by her former employer only seem to turn the clock back a year at most – except for one. With her career prospects in the toilet, and with scant emotional support from her social network made of other women suffering the myriad stresses of growing older in the city that sells idealized youth to the world, Anna decides to accept a shady offer from one of the executives of the company that just fired her – to become a test subject for a new and possibly revolutionary line of cosmetics with the power to return her looks to those of a woman decades younger. If this description has you braced for a sadistic techno-thriller, in which an angsting heroine is ceaselessly tortured with needles and scalpels and ultimately humiliated and broken across a series of examining tables, rest assured, YOUNGER is not that book. Rather, it unfolds with the kind of gradual, dread-inducing subtlety that marked classic paranoid Hollywood thrillers of the 1970's. Indeed, YOUNGER is at it's most creepily effective when Anna willingly assumes an identity that's been provided for her by a powerful series of shadowy multimillionaires whose motives are anything but clear, hastily cutting herself off from everything she knows in her rush to achieve what might be a miracle cure for laugh-lines, wrinkles and liver spots. But by not letting her novel spiral out into theatrics or action-driven spectacle, Suzanne Munshower creates a tight, tense canvas on which her characters can continue to probe, discuss and engage the topics that give the novel it's unsettling center. In short, YOUNGER is an intriguing buffet of unexpected literary combinations, a suspenseful but controlled exploration of aging, a topic with the potential to make some of us cringe worse than we would at the sight of blood.