Review | Involving, page-turning, exciting, electric: how to describe Toronto writer Elyse Friedman’s new novel ‘The Opportunist’
How we love to hate billionaires. Their fraught family dramas are irresistible to us ordinary folk, especially when it comes down to who inherits the money.
Toronto writer Elyse Friedman more than delivers with “The Opportunist,” a fast-paced thriller that hooks us from the start with its timeless plot: rich old fool falls for woman less than half his age. Can his kids derail their father’s dalliance? But Kelly McNutt, the opportunist in question, a 28-year-old nurse freshly engaged to Ed Shropshire, her 76-year-old patient, proves, at it were, a tough nut to crack.
Billionaire Ed has two sons and an estranged daughter. Whereas daughter Alana shows no interest in the family lucre, sons Martin and Teddy are another story.
As the tale opens, Alana, a woman her brothers mockingly call “Miss Morality,” has been ignoring their urgent messages about the threat to the family dynasty. When Martin flies from B.C. to Toronto and physically blocks her decrepit Toyota with his threatening Lexus (“I need to speak to you”), the single mother, sole support of her disabled daughter, yields to sibling pressure. Money talks and Alana needs the bonus her brothers have promised, if she’ll politely offer Nurse Kelly millions in cash to leave their father. Easy-peasy.
The class contrasts between Alana’s life and the family she fled could not be starker. During her visit to the family’s private island off Victoria, Alana is on the phone solving crises like flooded pipes and “Mr. Thompson is back in town,” code for another rat sighting at the Toronto women’s shelter where she works.
Outside her island cottage’s walls exists an impossibly lavish lifestyle, where preparations for Ed’s and Kelly’s wedding are underway. If there are warning signs — and there are — they are overshadowed by glittering luxury: the vast island estate, the servants, the easy access to private jets, yachts and speedboats. There’s a lot of booze, too, and Alana’s first unrelaxed days with her clan include martinis and hangovers.
Anxiety aside — families will do that to you — Alana is very appealing. Caring, funny, candid, she confesses that the only time she’d lost sufficient weight to please old Dad, she’d been in a period of self-loathing, when “her five food groups were Bushmills, Benzedrine, Nicorettes, espresso, and the occasional piece of toast.” She is shocked, however, to see that the father she remembered as “Charleston Heston on steroids” has become, post-stroke, “all linen and bones.”
Still, she feels no sympathy for the man who derided her childhood chubbiness. Was this the cause of their estrangement? Things move so fast, there’s little time for reflection.
There are, however, danger signs. What’s with the constant gunfire and the armed groundskeeper merrily shooting the island’s fallow deer? The arrogant dismissal — a “paddle event” — of Indigenous protests over island treaty rights? The spooky old guest cottage from Alana’s childhood? All the other cottages have been painted in cheerful hues. Secrets lurk beneath the estate’s shiny surfaces and communication among the siblings simmer with not-quite-buried grudges.
And then there’s Nurse Kelly. No trophy wife, she’s a bright-haired, petite, quick-witted woman who practises yoga at dawn, has converted old Ed to a vegan diet and banned toxic pesticides on the estate. Alana pitches her buyout “mission” to Kelly, while admiring both her dextrous yoga moves and her equally dexterous handling of her greedy brothers’ cash offer. No go.
Could she really love the old man? To his kids, that seems a big stretch. As the days roll by, Alana, increasingly repelled and alarmed by the lifestyles of the rich and murderous, becomes ever more fiercely intent on revealing family secrets.
As the plot becomes electric, with more twists and turns than her narcissist father’s psyche, Friedman’s flashbacks fill us in on Alana’s childhood, her mother living “reluctantly in the lap of luxury” (“It took her only twenty years to drink herself to death”) while explaining the absence of her beloved older sister, Lillian. Thanks to Alana, the formerly shamed and fearful youngest child, clues about her mysterious family history gradually surface — the sinister backdrop to her brothers’ lethal plans.
In exciting, page-turning prose, Friedman’s brilliant plotting and wonderfully devious characters act out scenes of mayhem and power struggles. “The world is a rotten place, full of rotten people doing rotten things,” Alana thought after her husband had left her and their daughter. Or is it? Her drama keeps us guessing and, what’s equally important, involved, from first page to last.
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