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Boreal Book Club: A Death at the Party by Amy Stuart

Welcome to STYLE Canada‘s Boreal Book Club: a monthly meeting narrated by Erin Catto, (reviewer at Girl Well Read), for bookworms who’re looking to scour new pages. Since we aim to shine a spotlight on all things Canadian in life and style, beauty, and health and wellness, it goes without saying that every instalment of the Boreal Book Club will feature a Canadian author and their latest title. Be sure to use the hashtag #BorealBookClub to share with us on social!

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Nadine Walsh’s summer garden party is in full swing. The neighbours all have cocktails, the catered food is exquisite—everything’s going according to plan.

But Nadine—devoted wife, loving mother, and doting daughter—finds herself standing over a dead body in her basement while her guests clink glasses upstairs. What happened? How did it come to this?

Rewind to that morning, when Nadine is in her kitchen, making last-minute preparations before she welcomes more than a hundred guests to her home to celebrate her mother’s birthday. But her husband is of little help to her, her two grown children are consumed with their own concerns, and her mother—only her mother knows that today isn’t just a birthday party. It marks another anniversary as well.

Still, Nadine will focus just on tonight. Everyone deserves a celebration after the year they’ve had. A chance for fun. A chance to forget. But it’s hard to forget when Nadine’s head is swirling with secrets, haunting memories, and concerns about what might happen when her guests unite.

Amy Stuart (Photo: Joey Stuart)

Stuart’s first standalone novel is a modern twist on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Taking place over a single day, A Death at the Party is a tense and clever domestic thriller. She turns the classic whodunit on its head—we know who the murderer is—but we don’t know which partygoer ends up dead, or why.

Nadine is a complex character—a perfectionist who is brilliantly imperfect. She may look together and polished on the outside, but is struggling with memories that threaten to crack her perfect exterior. It is easy to assume that Nadine is an unreliable narrator, especially because she is taking medication that can cloud her judgement, but there is an insidiousness dark side to her.

With its instant hook and short, punchy chapters, A Death at the Party is perfectly executed. It is a taut and riveting thriller that’s chock full of secrets. A must read!

AMY STUART is the author of the Still series: Still Mine, Still Water, and Still Here, which have been optioned for television by Lark/NBC Universal.

She has a MFA in Creative Writing through the University of British Columbia and worked for many years as a high school educator with the bulk of her career spent teaching guidance and English. Amy’s other love is ice hockey—she is one of only four women head coaches in the GTHL, the world’s largest youth competitive hockey league.

Stuart resides in Toronto with her husband and their three sons. They also spend much of their time on Prince Edward Island, where Amy’s family is originally from.

Scroll to read Girl Well Read’s exclusive interview with Amy Stuart. 

@amystuartwriter via Instagram

GWR: Was there a particular author/work that inspired you to become a writer or the way that you write? 

AS: Early in my writing career I was always reading Alice Munro short stories, and I think she really taught me what attention to craft could do. Once I settled in to becoming a thriller writer, I turned to writers like Dennis Lehane, PD James, and Louise Erdrich, who are masters of plotting and the crumb dropping required in thrillers.

GWR: What is the best advice you have received as an author?

AS: Without a doubt, the best advice I’ve received is to focus as much as possible on the act of writing and not worry too much about other things you can’t control, like the publishing industry or the market or whether the book will be a bestseller or not. Whether you’re an aspiring writer or a long-published one, the fact remains that writing is the only part of the process that you solely control. It’s where all your power lies. So put most of your energy there! And in terms of the industry stuff, be a good student: Listen to the people who know what they’re talking about (agents, editors, publicists, etc) and learn from their wisdom.

GWR: A Death at the Party is your first standalone book, did your process differ from the way you approached the ‘Still’ series?

AS: The process was definitely more confined, in the sense that I had to contain the entire story in one novel. I tried to lean into that sense of confinement instead of resisting it. I set the novel on a single day, limited the cast of characters and stuck to a handful of settings. Having less room to maneuver forced me to learn some new tricks as a writer. It was actually quite fun!

@simonschusterca via Instagram

GWR: How did you come up with the concept—what sparked the idea?

AS: Years ago, I read Mrs. Dalloway, the 1925 classic novel by Virginia Woolf. It follows a woman—Clarissa Dalloway—over the course of a single day as she prepares for a party. Sound familiar? The premise of A Death at the Party is exactly the same, but with a dead body in the mix. I’ve always thought it would be great fun to take the structure of a classic novel and twist it into a thriller. So that’s what I did.

GWR: Overall, what do you have more fun with, character development or plot?

AS: Yikes! I would say characters are more fun for me. Plotting is like a complex puzzle…when it’s working it’s wonderful, and when it’s not, it’s deeply frustrating. Characters are a little more pliable and forgiving, at least in the early stages of the process. I love layering in the quirks and characteristics that make them each their own person.

GWR: What is the one element of a thriller that is a must?

AS: To me, the key element to a thriller is the question. In the case of A Death at the Party, the question isn’t “whodunit?” but instead “whydunit?” We know from the first pages who commits the murder, so the question becomes why she did (and also, who is dead). As thriller readers, we’re propelled forward because there’s a central question—or questions—we simply need answered. That’s what keeps us turning the pages.

@amystuartwriter via Instagram

GWR: Do your plot twists happen organically, or do you construct your books around them?

AS: That’s a tough question! I think it’s a combination of both. In A Death at the Party, a few of the major plot twists actually did come about organically; certain events made sense as I got to know the characters better. But I need the central twist to be known before I get too deep in the writing process, or else I’m apt to veer way off course.

GWR: Give your best Hollywood pitch for A Death at the Party and who would you cast?

AS: Hollywood pitch: Imagine a gorgeous party full of gorgeous people. A band playing, everyone dressed to the nines, drinks flowing. The speeches have just ended, with secrets revealed! All is perfect. Aside, of course, from the dead body in the basement.

In terms of casting, I’ve always thought that Charlize Theron would make the perfect Nadine, and Michelle Pfeiffer, her mother Marilyn, because they’re only 20 years apart in age. From there, I’d give the Hollywood directors full liberties in choosing their cast.

@amystuartwriter via InstagramGWR: If your book was a beverage, what would it be? 

AS: A deliciously sweet cocktail with a hint of red in the colour and a flower for the garnish.

GWR: What are you working on now?

AS: A lot of things! A screenplay, and a new novel. Too early for the Hollywood pitch, but I’m excited for it!

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