Book Review: “Two Nights in Lisbon” by Chris Pavone
When Chris Pavone’s Two Nights in Lisbon was initially published in hardcover last May, there was a great deal of pre-release hype behind it. I got a print galley, a digital galley, and then a finished copy of the novel — which all came to me by the publisher without much prompting on my part if I’m recalling things correctly. Thus, it seemed like the publisher was particularly interested in promoting this one quite heavily from my perspective. But that’s not all. The book was generously blurbed, and quite gushingly, by several A-list American authors, including John Grisham, Stephen King, and Megan Abbott. Grisham and King, in particular, trumpeted the fact that this was a novel that you couldn’t put down. Indeed, this is a bit of a page-turner — if you don’t mind thinking about taking a nice hot shower as you read this. The thing with Two Nights in Lisbon is that it is more than just an effective thriller: it has something important to say and the ultimate subject matter of this novel is quite unsavory as it might be topical. I don’t want to reveal too much for those who have yet to wade into this book, but, suffice to say, I found myself putting it aside at certain moments because the real crime presented within it is so repellant and distasteful, if not violent, that I needed to take a break from the mechanization of this tome’s harrowing plot.
The novel is about a newlywed couple who are vacationing, sort of, in Lisbon, Portugal. I say sort of because it is also something of a business trip for the groom, John. However, he goes missing one morning and his wife Ariel immediately goes to both the police and the American embassy to get them on the case. Neither, of course, is of very much help to her. Then, she receives a phone call: it turns out that John has been kidnapped and Ariel has 48 hours to pull together three million euros in ransom to have him returned to her alive. Ariel, of course, doesn’t have that kind of money, but she happens to know people in her social circles who might. That is, of course, if they want to help her out — and they might have their reasons for not wanting to. And thus begins a bit of a cat-and-mouse game of double-crosses and requisite plot twists, and, naturally, the CIA winds up getting involved — which shouldn’t be saying too much as this is something mentioned near the beginning of this book.
Does that sound like a good premise for a thriller? It does to me, too. However, Two Nights in Lisbon veers off into unpredictable territory even though you can kind of figure out what’s likely to happen before it happens. This doesn’t make the book a less-than-stellar read; quite the contrary. This is a well-done slow burn, and the novel does go into important territory that has been covered by many thrillers being released these days: those that detail violence that is implicit against women. To that end, Pavone does a masterful job of creating a believable female protagonist who is quite vulnerable, but who does her fair share of fighting back against all sorts of injustices that are done to her. That’s probably the big selling point of this novel and what makes it so immensely readable. Having said that, though, this is also a challenging read because the book’s subject matter is bound to make readers quite uncomfortable. Thus, Two Nights in Lisbon is not an easy book to take. While it is a relatively quick to flip through even at being more than 400 pages in length (and it is a quick read because of its semi-predictability, which is a pleasure of its own and keeps the narrative moving), it could have been trimmed just a little bit. It feels a little overlong, with an epilogue that feels a bit tacked on to give this book a mercifully happy ending. (Or as happy of an ending as you could expect from a book such as this. This is not to say that I’m not happy it ends the way it does, but these characters really go through the wringer and there could have been, perhaps, a little less of that in the lead-up to the end.)
In the end, I’m not sure how far I would go in recommending Two Nights in Lisbon as a must-read novel. It is very well done, but it made me squirm. The writing is top drawer for being genre fiction— flaws are damned. And the book does have them: you can’t think of the twists and turns too hard, or the plot kind of comes undone. Without meaning to spoil anything, it turns out that the kidnappers go to an awful lot of trouble just to achieve their ends — though, at the same time, they must go to the lengths they go to. (For this reason, I guess I’m of two minds about this book.) In any event, perfection is always hard to come by, so we should be very satisfied with the care and craft that Pavone has put into this novel about the ugliness of American society and how women tend to get treated within it. Overall, Two Nights in Lisbon is going to appeal to readers who like their thrillers to thrill, but perhaps not too much. Me? I liked this, but didn’t love it — and the reason is that I now feel as though I have to have that hot shower to rinse away the griminess of the major crime that is ultimately revealed here. Two Nights in Lisbon is worth a look, but just be prepared to go against what those A-list writers were raving about. This is a novel you’ll want to put down now and then. You’ll need to just get through the repulsiveness of the female protagonist’s unfavorable experiences throughout this troubling yet searing work of genre fiction.
Chris Pavone’s Two Nights in Lisbon was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux / MCD on May 24, 2022.
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