The greatest premise in the world doesn’t always equal the greatest book. That unfortunately sums up Sophie Hannah’s latest, Perfect Little Children, which also goes by the name Haven’t They Grown in the UK and Europe. That isn’t to say that this book has the best premise in the history of literature, but it’s definitely one of the better thriller ideas I’ve come across in a while. That’s why, when I first saw the title and read about the book itself, I knew I had to ask to review it as soon as possible.
I prefer the European title, so I’ll be referring to this book as Haven’t They Grown from here on.
The newest effort from one of the mystery/thriller genre’s most prominent names begins on a Saturday morning. On that fateful day, we begin the story of one Beth Leeson — a specialized massage therapist who lives in a small British village, and shares her home with her husband (Dom), 17 year-old daughter (Zannah) and 14 year-old son (Ben). It’s Ben’s soccer game that has her out of the house that fictional morning, and it just so happens that the match has taken them near an old friend’s new home. That is, the mansion that Beth’s former best friend, Flora, and her jackass of a husband, Lewis, moved to with their kids after inheriting a ton of money from family. The thing is: Beth hasn’t seen those former friends for 12 years.
For curiosity’s sake, Beth has taken a detour, in order to take a peek at the Braid mansion, which is located on a swanky semi-private road called Wyddial Lane. There, a select few wealthy families own stately and unique homes, and keep a close eye on who comes and goes. After all, they moved there for a reason.
When Beth parks outside of 16 Wyddial Lane, though, she ends up being surprised by what she sees. Not long after parking, another vehicle drives by, pulls into the driveway (which she’s parked across from) and stops. Out comes Flora, her former best friend, along with two young children who look identical to those that Lewis and Flora had years before. That is, their elder son, Thomas and their middle child, Emily. What’s even more perplexing is what she hears: It sounds as if Flora calls these two clone-like children the exact same names as her two eldest, who would be in their mid-to-late teens at this point. After all, they were a few and several years old when she last saw them, and that was more than a decade ago.
These can’t be the same kids. It’s not possible. Yet, why would any mother use the same names twice? Also, why do they look like clones? And why are they wearing clothes that Beth remembers Thomas and Emily wearing more than ten years ago? None of it makes sense.
Thus, the mystery is established, and we spend the rest of Haven’t They Grown inside of Beth’s head, as she tries to piece together the possibilities and attempts to solve the mystery of what she’s seen. The book is told exclusively from her perspective, and she often deals with doubts from her husband, who thinks that she’s worrying too much. Beth can’t let it go, though, and shows that she will stop at nothing to find out the reasons for what she saw and heard in front of 16 Wyddial Lane.
As I mentioned before, this is a thought provoking, intriguing and downright interest piquing premise. Things also start off very well. The problem here is that its good premise isn’t enough to sustain this book from start to finish. It gets repetitive and starts to drag, and things are repeated a lot. The ending also doesn’t live up to the beginning, as the final twists are not all that unique, shocking or inventive. All that build-up led me to be disappointed and somewhat bored by the end.
The writing is above average, but that didn’t surprise me. Sophie Hannah seems to be a well liked and distinguished author in her field. I also appreciated that the British slang was kept at a minimum, as that made it easier to read and understand as someone who lives on the other side of the pond. There were a couple of errors that editing missed, as well as a couple of minor run-on sentences, but nothing to really say much about. I’d really have to be nitpicking and vindictive to call out the writing, because it was mostly quite good. I just wish the story had maintained that same level of quality from start to finish.
Beth also never felt like a unique main character. Oftentimes, she came across as a cookie cutter lead in a typical thriller or mystery. There was nothing all that special or memorable about her, but she did serve the purpose and fit this book. Her daughter Zannah was the most well rounded and believable character, with her husband Dom coming in second.
Haven’t They Grown isn’t a bad book, though. It’s just not anything special. Perhaps I set my expectations too high after reading its premise online, but maybe not. What began as a very interesting and perplexing mystery/thriller started, stopped and hung a bit too much for its own good. There was also far too much repetition and backtracking, which didn’t make for a terribly entertaining read. It’s still decent, though, and is better than a lot of what’s out on bookstore shelves these days. Just don’t go in expecting anything remarkable, because it won’t live up to those expectations.
This review is based on a copy of the book that we were provided with.