Shutter, by Melissa Larsen

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Melissa Larsen, and Berkley Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Melissa Larsen brings much to this debut novel, taking the reader on a curious, as well as eerie, trip through the mind of a film director with a mission. A young woman has her sights set on making it big and heads to New York, where she knows but one person. After being introduced to a mysterious film director, Betty agrees to be cast in the leading role of an upcoming film, not entirely clear what it will entail. Later learning that this is an ‘act natural’ film, Betty soon discovers there’s more to it than she thought at first, pitting actors against one another, especially those unaware that the camera is even rolling. Well-paced and chilling at times, Larsen shows in Shutter that she has what it takes to stand above many in the genre.

It’s been a rough few months for Betty, which is why she has decided to flee her small California town for the bright lights of NYC. There, with only one childhood friend to call upon, Betty tries to make it big. She’s soon introduced to Anthony Marino, a film director with a new idea. Marino feels that Betty could be the perfect fit for his new project, but he is not yet ready to share any of the details.

Travelling up to a small Maine cabin, Marino, Betty, and a few others prepare to shoot the film on-location. It happens to be the Marino family cabin, where Anthony spent much time as a child. Betty is told that the film with be without script or actual direction, more an ‘act natural’ idea, where cameras are always rolling, hidden in rooms, on trees, and many other places. It is supposed to be a chance for everyone to just be and let the story evolve.

Betty is tasked with becoming Lola, a young woman with no clear backstory. She must also develop immediate chemistry with her leading man, Mads. While this may be the goal, Betty finds herself constantly drawn to Anthony, which will make building proper chemistry a little harder. Still, Betty is trying to come to terms with the literal and figurative transformation into Lola, its importance as yet baffling.

When Anthony announces that there will be a stalker element to the film, he introduces a new face, Sammy. This is a childhood friend of Anthony’s and an unknowing addition to the film. While Sammy appears inquisitive on the surface, he begins to gravitate towards Betty in odd ways. It is only then that the truth about the Anthony-Sammy connection is revealed, as well as the essence of Betty’s transformation into Lola. What’s not yet clear is what will happen when all these elements are put together in a bucolic setting, with the cameras rolling non-stop.

Melissa Larsen does a great job in her storytelling, pulling the reader into the centre of this piece with unknown elements coming together at just the right pace. With little revealed at the outset, the mystery is as present for Betty as it is for the reader. Slowly, things become clearer, which does not always make for a smooth ride for anyone involved. It permits a handful of key twists throughout the piece to shape a narrative that gains momentum with each page turn.

Betty is a great protagonist, in that she offers much to the story on both a personal and ‘professional’ level. Her desire to flee home is apparent throughout, as the reasons come to light throughout the novel. Her thirst for escape is only heightened when she feels that she can transform into a new woman by taking up the film project. However, while Betty would love to forget herself, it is not the change into Lola that fuels what she had in mind. All that being said, there is a great deal going on, none of which Betty could have predicted from the outset.

Larsen offers a number of intriguing secondary characters throughout the piece, all of whom bring something to the table to flavour the story effectively. While some complement Betty, others serve as obvious roadblocks to impede her natural growth. The underlying Anthony-Sammy storyline comes to a head and adds a needed depth to the plot, though things are less than smooth from thereon in. Larsen is able to portray the likes of Sammy, Anthony, and even Mads as different yet all tied together in one form or another. This keeps the reader entertained and curious about how the chemistry will develop, much like actors working on a script with the cameras rolling.

For a debut, I was quite impressed with Melissa Larsen’s efforts. While there were some small bumps, the overall experience was one that I enjoyed and would do so again without a second thought. The narrative flows well and gains momentum at just the right pace, with characters offering something to the experience without stealing the spotlight. Save for the opening chapter, each part of the book is short and keeps the reader wanting to know more, which is matched with an eerie plot that injects twists and confusing at key points. Larsen’s great use of dialogue keeps things feeling natural, which is an interesting parallel with the actual premise of the book, where the characters are to ‘be themselves’ while the cameras roll onwards. With a chilling end, Larsen leaves the reader wondering and thinking well after turning the final page, which is the essence of a strong thriller.

Kudos, Madam Larsen, for a great start to your writing career. I cannot wait to see what else you have in store when next you publish!

Be sure to check for my review, first posted on Mystery and Suspense, as well as a number of other insightful comments by other reviewers.

https://www.mysteryandsuspense.com/shutter/

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons