Review: “Not a Happy Family” by Shari Lapena

not a happy family book cover from goodreads, background photo from kent rebman on unsplash
Original background cover photo credit: Kent Rebman on Unsplash

There are many expensive houses here in Brecken Hill, an enclave on the edge of Aylesford, in the Hudson Valley.

Not a Happy Family, Prologue opening

Author: Shari Lapena
Publication Date: July 27th 2021
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Find it on: Goodreads


In this family, everyone is keeping secrets–especially the dead. Brecken Hill in upstate New York is an expensive place to live. You have to be rich to have a house there. And they don’t come much richer than Fred and Sheila Mercer. But even all their money can’t protect them when a killer comes to call. The Mercers are brutally murdered the night after an Easter Dinner with their three adult kids. Who, of course, are devastated.

Or are they? They each stand to inherit millions. They were never a happy family, thanks to their capricious father and neglectful mother, but perhaps one of them is more disturbed than anyone knew. Did one of them snap after that dreadful evening? Or was it someone else that night who crept in with the worst of intentions? It must be. After all, if one of your siblings was a psychopath, you’d know.

Wouldn’t you?

From Goodreads


Book Content Warnings: depression, fertility issues, liver cirrhosis, cancer, alcoholism, abuse, stalking, infidelity

Not a Happy Family by Shari Lapena is a domestic thriller revolving around police investigation into the murder of a wealthy couple, Fred and Sheila Mercer. As the title implies their family life was less than perfect. Fred showed signs of psychopathy – steamrolling his wife, coldly pushing his children, and taking vindictive joy in dropping dramatic bombshells at the dinner table. When the housekeeper finds Fred and Sheila brutally murdered not long after an explosive family Easter dinner, investigators narrow in on the adult children and their significant others. Each of them had motive. The question is, who could have snapped first?

The family itself is somewhat large so there are a lot of characters introduced up front. Once you settle in to the story, however, it becomes a dramatic domestic drama. The heft of the story can be boiled down to two scenes, repeated – the detectives efforts interviewing the group in attempt to find leads, followed by hushed family infighting. This pattern cycles a few times which I believe was intended to heighten the tension but I found a bit old. Unfortunately because there are so many children and significant others I didn’t especially connect with anyone, though I did feel badly for the partners being suddenly burdened with so much stress and uncertainty.

On whole this is a story of a spectacularly screwed up family trying to sort their way out of this mess. There’s boatloads of interpersonal conflict and motive to sort through, and there is an interesting ending. I would classify this more as a mystery than a traditional thriller, but it was an interesting read nonetheless. I’d possibly recommend this for people who don’t already have their share of familial drama, or for those who enjoy mystery/thrillers and don’t mind going heavy on the topic.


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