Ever read a book whose first page details a woman’s brain-injuring fall down an immeasurable flight of stairs?
The answer is probably no. And I’ve probably managed to catch your attention.
In Gottlieb’s third novel, he’s built a rich and multilayered narrative suspension around the skill of face reading, a practice that, like divination in Harry Potter or the art of Tarot in The Night Circus, is given immediate and concrete legitimacy from page one. We as readers are expected to accept as truth that hooked noses belong to the proud and that every hairline tells its owner’s life story. Gottlieb makes it easy to afford this quasi-fantastical concession — and could no doubt read on our own faces the impatience to turn a page.
Overall, The Face Thief is just that: a page-turner. What distinguishes it from other page-turners is that you’re never quite sure whom you’re rooting for. And that’s kind of exhausting. Lawrence, for example, is an honest man seemingly taken for a ride by the calculating felon Margot; but just when you’ve spent all your defenses on Lawrence, just as you’ve sworn the unfairness of Margot tearing his marriage apart, it’s casually revealed to you how much of a two-way street infidelity is. Just as you pity John Potash for losing all his (and his new wife’s) money in a scam investment, you want to smack the rash stupidity of such a decision right out of him, too. And then, of course, there’s Margot herself: how many bad deeds can one person’s unfortunate past explain away? The moral ambiguity is itself what turns the pages. Will the next chapter be the one that tells us who our hero is? Will it at least tell us there’s no one to fit that bill?