Looking for suspenseful stories with strong female characters who are not breathing down each other’s neck all the time? Then Michelle Frances’s The Temp is for you.

British author Frances established herself as a new, yet mature and knowing voice in the genre of psychological thriller with her bestselling 2017 debut The Girlfriend, which took on issues of unforgiveable lies and twisted relationships. The Temp, her second book, deals with the issue of relationships caught in the crossfire of scheming and manipulation. It is a thriller with undertones of domestic drama, where a talented young woman is looking to replace a successful older woman. The narrative is told from the perspectives of Carrie and Emma, who have different views of each other, but share one constant: Adrian. Surprisingly, not for reasons one might assume.

Carrie is in her 40s and has a thriving career as a producer of television programmes. She is a strong, confident woman at the top of her game. Her husband, Adrian, is an award-winning television screenwriter. They are content in their professional and personal lives and have decided not to have children in order to focus on their careers. However, fate has something else in store: Carrie gets unintentionally pregnant and when she chooses to keep the baby, this knocks her relationship with her husband off balance. Throwing their plans into further disarray is the fact that they are in the midst of preparing for a new show which requires a huge amount of their time and attention.

A psychological thriller with strong female characters upends expectations from a relationship triangle involving a man

To cope with it all, Adrian and the managing director of their production company, Liz, decide to hire additional help — a replacement for Carrie — for a few months. Enter Emma the temp, a young woman who, despite her intelligence and ambition, has always struggled to be the daughter her parents can be proud of.

Carrie is not thrilled about the new employee. Because of her pregnancy and the accompanying health concerns, she can’t stay in the office for long periods of time and when Adrian, Liz and everyone else in the production company rave about Emma’s work, it’s not long before jealousy takes hold of her. The final nail in the coffin is the birth of baby boy Rory. Swamped under the demands of taking care of the newborn, Carrie eventually stops going to the office altogether and loses touch with her colleagues. As Adrian does not give her the support she needs, she finds herself drifting away from her husband as well. In her isolation, Carrie’s already creative mind goes into overdrive and she subconsciously puts the blame for Adrian’s indifference on Emma.

At this point, readers will understandably jump to expected conclusions. The author has built up the conflict between the two female protagonists and the cover gives it that extra nudge with its taglines “She’s got your job. She wants your life.” The impression one gets is that Emma is a conniving vamp who wants to usurp Carrie’s life and the tussle will — in all probability — be over Carrie’s husband, Adrian.

Carrie felt violated, as if she were naked, exposed in her stupidity — her naivety. She had worked so hard for everything and this... girl, this abominable, awful, vile girl had tried to take it all from her. Just because she felt like it. She was like a stalker — no, a parasite, helping herself to someone else’s life. — Excerpt from the book

Much to the reader’s delight, that is not the case at all.

Yes, Carrie is deeply insecure. Given her track record, she does not want to be considered replaceable, either professionally or personally. We, the readers, begin to see that Emma doesn’t want to take Carrie’s place; the younger woman is actually determined to impress the older woman, but Carrie’s blinding insecurity leads her to believe that Emma is hiding some deep, dark, malevolent secret. Certainly someone is keeping secrets. A shrewd, selfish and insensitive person is keeping secrets that have terrifying consequences... but let’s not give away any spoilers.

Frances does a good job in creating a tightly wound thriller. She crafts her three main characters with strong backstories and conflicting perspectives, which makes for strong plot development as well. Smaller characters, such as Liz, opponent TV producer Elaine and Emma’s parents are also integral to the story’s progression. The author weaves all the characters together seamlessly so that readers will not find any inconsistency in the story — a rare treat. It is also interesting to know that Frances herself worked in the television industry for 15 years; this helps her expound in detail about the nitty-gritty of television production and adds an element of authenticity to the dialogue between industry professionals.

I also love how Frances depicts a realistic picture of the complexities and insecurities experienced by women in the workplace as she touches upon gender disparity and how influential individuals misuse power to get places, step over one another for money and steal someone’s hard work to attain fame and success.

However, for all its plus points, the novel does suffer a bit in places; the pace is slow, picking up only towards the end, and the author could have omitted some details without making much difference to the story. I will still applaud her, though, for showing women who are powerful and passionate, but not out to steal husbands. Given that the basic premise is set in the entertainment industry, where women are ad nauseam portrayed as vamps — especially when there are three characters in a triangle — The Temp is a breath of fresh air. Its women are not weak and insipid, but honest, hardworking and looking to get ahead in their careers without a man to help them climb.

The reviewer is a freelance writer, avid reader and blogger

The Temp
By Michelle Frances
Pan Macmillan, UK
ISBN: 978-1509877140
465pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 24th, 2019