“I despise hearing about other people’s problems, because I don’t like most people, especially people who would be described as normal.”
-Alafair Burke, The Ex
That quote pretty much sums up the book. Criminal defense attorney Olivia Randall is representing her ex-fiancé, Jack Harris, who has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder. Olivia, as you can probably tell from the quote, is extremely unlikable. So is Jack. Olivia is a successful woman who has always picked her career first, so by author logic I guess that means she also has to have some sort of serious emotional issue, or at least be cold and unfeeling. God forbid a career-driven woman be likable! Instead, Burke tries way too hard to mold Olivia into a “complicated” character, which of course makes her so one-dimensional that it physically hurts to keep reading at times.
Consider the quote for a second…a defense attorney who doesn’t like hearing about other people’s problems? That is actually, completely, 100% her job description. I guess in Burke’s mind Olivia has to be hateful, closed-off emotionally, and impeccably dressed to be interesting. I’m not saying that complex women aren’t great characters, especially for murder mysteries. They are. Think Amy Dunne from Gone Girl or Rachel Watson from Girl on the Train. Both of them are practically a psychiatrist’s wet dream. What makes them so fascinating as characters is that they actually make sense from time to time. You may hate some of the things they say or do, but you’re guaranteed to hate yourself more when you realize you agree with, or at least relate to, others. That’s why Amy and Rachel get under our skin- because we see a part of ourselves in them that we don’t like and are kind of freaked out by.
The subtlety required to make you feel that sense of discomfort rather than outright hatred or contempt for a complex female lead is a testament to the skill of the author. Gillian Flynn should get a trophy for it. That feeling, when you’re halfway through a monologue full of utter disdain or intent to do something pretty damn evil and you catch your self in mid-nod of agreement…I think that if you don’t get that feeling while reading a mystery or psychological thriller then it’s pretty much a waste of time. A book without that is the kind of book you fall asleep on (yes, I mean on- as in you probably end up using it as a pillow), not the kind of book you stay up reading until 3:30 AM even though you have class at 9. Personally, those are the only kind of books I like to read.
If it weren’t enough that the characters are flat and unlikable, the ending is also incredibly predictable. Burke also makes no effort to explain it. I’m all for mysteries in which the author doesn’t tie up every single loose thread in a perfect bow and place it in your lap (think Tana French’s In The Woods or pretty much any other Tana French novel), but the ending of The Ex feels more like Burke knew that it was so obvious she didn’t even need to make the effort to explain it.