One of my favorite set-ups for a book (or movie! or show!) is the classic one of a bunch of friends gathering at a remote mansion or cabin or, in this case, a Scottish lodge in the remote wilderness, and things going off the rails. This set-up was used to such fun in Lucy Foley’s 2019 novel, The Hunting Party.
The friends of at least 10 years, having largely met at Oxford in England, are:
- Miranda, the star of the group, the quintessential “popular party girl,” who everyone sort of defers to. We come to learn though that she doesn’t have a career, is unable to get pregnant, and is in a loveless marriage falling apart due, in some measure, by her spouse’s insider trading scheme. She’s also a kleptomaniac, and somewhat of a bully to her other friends, who she views as projects, or as stepstools to elevate herself. And those friends resent her for it.
- Katie, Miranda’s best friend of 20 years, who is seen as Miranda’s “project” owing to her looks not being as appealing apparently, or as charming and outgoing as Miranda. Katie did better academically at Oxford, however, and went on to work as a lawyer. Their friendship has drifted because Katie isn’t the same woman she was 20 years prior. Katie has been distancing herself for years from Miranda because of her controlling, bullying ways. Resentment would be an appropriate word here for what Katie feels.
- Julien, Miranda’s husband, who fits the quintessential “good looking, buff guy” mold, who makes all the money in the relationship as well, but has the prior insider trading scheme going on. He’s seen as a bit … surface level by Katie and the others. Julien never feels enough in the eyes of Miranda, and drifts from her over it.
- Nick and Bo, are the gay couple, with Bo the only American of the group, and who used to have a drug problem. Nick is also close friends with Katie. Everyone but Miranda has a good job of some sort, but I’m blanking on what these two do. Nick holds a grudge against Miranda because she outed him to his parents before he could. He saw it as her attempt at power and control yet again.
- Samira and Giles, the couple with the baby, six-month-old Priya. Samira was part of the Katie and Miranda dynamic, and considered the most adventurous and party animal of the three until having a kid settled her down. Giles had a tryst with Miranda prior to getting with Samira, but during Miranda’s time with Julien.
- Mark, who is a hothead with violent tendencies, has a major crush on Miranda despite having a girlfriend, and being close mates with Julien. He doesn’t even particularly hide his touchy-feely ways with Miranda when they play a game of Twister, for example.
Then there is Emma, who is the newcomer to the group as Mark’s boyfriend of about three years. To ingratiate herself to the group, it is her idea to get together at the lodge in Scotland for the group’s annual New Year’s Eve party.
At the lodge, we meet Heather, who lost her firefighter boyfriend (or husband?) to a fire and escaped to the remote wilderness of the lodge in her grief, and Doug, a former marine in Afghanistan, who was the only one to survive an ambush, and also uses the lodge, working as its gamekeeper, as a way to escape.
Foley’s book is brilliantly structured to maximize the pacing and tension: The book shifts viewpoints from Heather to Emma to Miranda to Katie to Doug, and from the present day when we know one of the “guests,” i.e., one of the friends, has been killed, and to three or two days prior when the group is first getting to the lodge, and then how everything begins to unravel from that point on.
From the beginning, largely thanks to the perspective we get from Emma, I pegged her as the killer of either Katie or Miranda. I wasn’t sure yet which one of them would be killed. As the book went along, even though Foley didn’t yet reveal the identity of the victim, it seemed clear it would be Miranda because all of the characters, as I outlined above, had reason or motive to kill her, if they were so inclined. Even Doug was a red herring due to his marine background, fugue state he goes into due to his post-traumatic stress syndrome, and the fact that Miranda was coming on to him. As for why I thought Katie might be the victim, I figured Emma would want to kill her so she could be Miranda’s new best friend.
The reason Emma seemed obvious as the killer wasn’t just because of her attempt at ingratiating herself to the group, but because she seemed to be putting on an act; she seemed too nice, too obsequious. In fact, there is a moment in the book when Katie talks about feeling bad for Emma for the way Miranda treats her (in their words, as a bitch), and Emma reassures her that it’s okay, she doesn’t mind. But more than that, Emma also seemed too meticulous about the planning and the cooking. Not that everyone who is like that is a psychopath, but it sprung the alarm bells in my brain. Finally, I just started thinking, she desperately wants to be like Miranda, and is even happy having a boyfriend that lusts after Miranda, and because of that, we likely had the classic single white female trope going on.
And that is what it turned out to be. Emma actually met Miranda at the beginning of their time in Oxford, but Miranda forgot about it, and so, Emma changed her look and began stalking Miranda and becoming more and more like her to the point where she eventually joined the group via being Mark’s girlfriend. She attacked Miranda at the lodge because Miranda found out about it and called her a psychopath. She choked Miranda and then pushed her over the railing of a bridge to her death. Later, when she realizes the police are coming, she rushes to kill Katie, blaming her for everything due to her affair with Julien (more on that momentarily). Heather stops it, though, by jumping in between the two, taking the bullet for Katie.
There are two things that didn’t ring true to me in the book, though, albeit it, I don’t find it took away from my enjoyment:
- We learn that Katie and Julien are sleeping together. That in and of itself isn’t my issue. As it is explained by Katie, she was lonely and stressed, he was lonely and stressed, and they both were out of the controlling gaze and reach of Miranda, so it became a thing. Those two characters (along with Miranda as this gravitational force) arriving at an affair made sense. But what didn’t make sense, and what didn’t ring true to Katie’s character in particular, was that they would have raunchy sex in the sauna at the lodge with Miranda on the property. They do, and Miranda catches them, finding out about the affair. It just didn’t seem like something the Katie character would do! But Miranda finding out about the affair is what sets up the interaction with Emma, which sets up the murder of Miranda, which is the entire crux of the book: to unravel the whodunit (and who was killed, as again, Foley kept that secret for the first three-fourths of the book).
- In the epilogue, we learn that Emma’s ability to play-act proved beneficial when in front of the jury while on trial for Miranda’s death: she got “off” with manslaughter and a four-year prison sentence. I suppose I could imagine a jury unwilling or unable to convict someone on murder because of the nature of the crime, although there was an eye witness, the handyman of the lodge (another red herring as Miranda’s killer; he was just a drug mule for the owner of the lodge). But what I don’t understand … how did she not go down for the attempted murder of Katie and for shooting Heather, who saved Katie by taking the bullet?!
I thought Foley’s book, on the whole, was great as a whodunit and who-was-it-dun-to book, even if I was able to figure both out early on, I still enjoyed how it all unraveled. I also think the book works as a solid meditation on friendship, and the ways in which friendship and friend groups change over time because people change over time. We aren’t the same people we were 10 years ago, and so, our friendships aren’t the same either, or shouldn’t be. Foley hones in on this by showing how the friend group largely makes conversation about their lives 10 years ago because that is where the nostalgia sits, and how they are all, like Emma, sort of play-acting as if they are still close friends and jolly when they aren’t. They are going through the motions, inhabiting the ghosts of friendships long since dead.
The most likable characters of the bunch were our lodge people, Heather and Doug, because of their sad, tragic backstories, and because they were the only ones in the book genuinely trying to do good. Heather goes through a nice arc of thinking she’d probably like to die up at that lodge by suicide, her grief is so heavy, and by the end, she realizes she is loved and has more to live for. Doug, although it isn’t as explicit, realizes he can be more than a brooding gamekeeper at the lodge, thanks to Heather.
Katie was likable up until the affair moment, though, and I did sort of pity Miranda, despite all of her faults. She obviously didn’t deserve to die. Plus, she got hit by the double-whammy at the end of learning about the Katie-Julien affair and that Emma was her creepy stalker.
Overall, if you like a fun, I suppose classic “beach read,” then this one is for you!