Imagine your bright, brave friend is dying of cancer. Imagine she falls in love, in spite of her illness. And then, imagine your friend betrayed, as the man she fell in love with was already married to another woman. Inspired rather than scorned, she decides to write a book about the experience. And then she dies, less than a chapter of the novel created.
Is this the plot of A.J. Rich’s The Hand That Feeds You? No, not at all. This is the plot behind the plot. A.J. Rich is not a person, but a pseudonym, a merger of three names: A. (Amy Hempel), J. (Jill Climent), and Rich for Katherine Russell Rich. Hempel and Climent wrote The Hand That Feeds You to honor their friend Katherine Russell Rich, who passed away without the chance to put to paper her own idea for a story. The Chicago Tribune explains:
“And then she, this amazing accomplished woman, met a guy,” Ciment says. “And he knew she had Stage IV cancer and he fell in love with her. Over the course of a period of time, she discovered — and I notice it always happens at Christmastime, when you discover that your lover is married.”
And out of heartbreak, out of death, comes a thriller of heartbreak and death. I love books unafraid to peer under the bed where the monsters live, and this is where The Hand That Feeds You goes. Hempel and Climent hand you a flashlight, and urge you to push into the darkness, beckoning you into the closets and basements where their bold questions about the nature of crime and its victims await.
The Hand That Feeds You begins with a mauling. It’s gruesome, and it gave me nightmares. Victim and victimology student Morgan arrives home to what she thinks are rose petals on the floor. At second glance, she realizes she’s looking at red paw prints. Her dogs are covered in what looks like red paint. But it isn’t paint, and her fiancé’s body is in the bedroom. Morgan is shocked that her beloved dogs (big dogs, but tame ones) mauled her fiancé Bennett, and left him lying dead.
As Morgan seeks to make sense of the tragedy, as she seeks Bennett’s family to notify them of his death, things that normally should fall into place after such an incident don’t. The body remains unidentified at the morgue–the man she knew as Bennett was a fraud, the family he told her lived in Canada nonexistent. Who was this man, and how was she, a student of the ways criminals take advantage of their victims, susceptible to such a lie? How was she not immune?
This is a book that pushes boundaries at every twist and turn. Morgan, as narrator, isn’t a strong and independent femme fatale but a woman rocked to her very core by past events and current ones, a woman trying to protect herself by intellectually understanding the evils of the world, and failing miserably.