Suzanne Redfearn's "Hush Little Baby." (Handout / September 5, 2013)

Hush Little Baby

Suzanne Redfearn

Grand Central Publishing; 357 pages

If Suzanne Redfearn's "Hush Little Baby" had a second half to equal its first, it might have been a remarkable achievement. For nearly 200 pages, the novel is a spellbinding thriller that wrings suspense out of tiny moments: the looks, gestures and carefully calculated words that make up an abusive marriage. It's when the heroine breaks out of that situation that the book itself begins to roam.

That's a shame, because at its best, "Hush Little Baby" is skillful at evoking a predicament that's all too common — and, as the author notes, often takes place behind closed doors.

The lead character, Jillian Kane, is a successful Laguna Beach architect and mother of two small children. Her husband, Gordon, is a police officer, coach, community hero and, for years, vicious wife-beater and adulterer.

In these early passages, we watch the delicate play-by-play of the Kanes' marriage. Redfearn, a Laguna Beach resident, paints their relationship as a minefield in which any small move can provoke an explosion. With Gordon's moods swinging from charm to violence, Jillian does the careful stepping; we track her decisions as she opts to back off or stand up, as she weaves excuses and scrambles to preserve her image as a content career woman. (In one of the book's most chilling moments, her young daughter gives her a scarf for her birthday in case she gets "smudges" on her neck again; those smudges were bruises from her husband trying to strangle her.)

Then an unexpected act of violence sends Jillian fleeing with the children in tow. It's here, as the three wind their way up the coast and take refuge in the small town of Elmer City, Washington, that the plot starts to strain credibility.

One problem is that the children seem uncannily accepting of the circumstances; after a couple of brief remarks, they barely acknowledge the fact that they've been uprooted from home and separated from their father. And when Jillian strikes up a fast friendship with a local Native American, who dispenses Zenlike wisdom and takes the kids under his wing, it feels a little too ideal to be true.

What's most disappointing in the book's second half is its wavering tone, which feels taut in places and relaxed or even jokey in others. At one point, Jillian, who narrates the book in the present tense, chides herself for believing in fairy-tale romance when "every episode of 'Oprah,' 'Dr. Phil,' and 'The Simpsons' disproves it" — a statement that might fit in a humorous Nora Ephron essay, not a serious take on domestic violence. (Piling on the TV analogies, the novel later has a supporting character compare Jillian's plight to "a poorly scripted episode of 'Melrose Place.'")

As for the ending? I suppose it resolves things. The good guys win, and poetic justice is served. There's nice suspense and a dash of irony. But I would have preferred something more thoughtful.

Long ago, I knew a professional woman who always seemed demure and polite, and everything she mentioned about her family pointed to domestic bliss. Years later, I heard from a friend that she had fled her husband after years of abuse. I wondered then — and still do — what pains she must have taken to hide her secret in public, and what courage she had to muster to escape.

Those are questions that "Hush Little Baby" addresses, but not always in a deep or satisfying way.

—Michael Miller


Hail To The King

Avenged Sevenfold

Warner Bros. Records, LP

On a typical day, I'll grab a cup of coffee with no sugar to help wake me up in the morning. But if that cup of joe isn't enough, I'll put on some metal and head-bang myself awake.

I have my tried-and-true bands: early Metallica, Iron Maiden and Slipknot (yes, those folks from Des Moines, Iowa with the masks). There's a plethora of other bands out there, like Huntington Beach locals Avenged Sevenfold, that I haven't been too keen on.