Nearly a year ago, Poppy Lang’s husband, Jack, was brutally murdered during his morning run through Manhattan’s Riverside Park. The police have not found his killer and, given that Jack didn’t have any known enemies, are investigating the case as a random attack.
Immediately after Jack’s funeral, Poppy suffered a psychotic break brought on by grief and despair. She disappeared for several days before turning up wearing an uncharacteristically tight red dress. She was confused and did not remember the time she was gone, with her memories of the days leading up to Jack’s death sketchy, at best.
Now Poppy is trying to move on with her life, but is haunted by those lost days. She’s been self-medicating — numbing her grief and pain with alcohol and nondescript pills supplied by her best friend, Layla. Not to mention the sleeping pills that her therapist has prescribed. Poppy is having frightening nightmares and experiencing blackouts. She can’t distinguish between reality and her imagination, unsure if she is hallucinating or finally recalling events that her mind suppressed in order to protect her. Now she thinks a strange man in a hooded sweatshirt is following her, although she’s not completely convinced he is real.
What if the nightmares are actually memories?
Poppy’s need to know the truth about her life with Jack and the reason(s) why he was killed propel her manic search for information. As the story opens, she is barely functioning, running the business she and Jack founded, a photography agency, by day, but retreating most nights to the home of her friends Layla and Mac. There she accepts the pills that Layla supplies and mixes them with wine before taking a sleeping pill and passing out. She can barely stand to spend any time in the posh apartment she and Jack purchased, but did not move into, prior to his death. It doesn’t feel like home. She longs to be back in the small apartment they previously shared surrounded by an eclectic group of neighbors with whom they had friendly relationships. Now unpacked boxes are the main decor in her residence. She has begun dating — at Layla’s urging — but she is clearly not ready to let go of her marriage to Jack and begin a new relationship. She has gone out with three men, but in each instance no meaningful relationship bloomed. Rather, after hooking up with them, merely as a means to escape for a little while from her emotional torment, she has ghosted them.
Layla and Poppy have been best friends since childhood. Layla comes from a dysfunctional family characterized by abuse. Indeed, when the girls were sixteen years old, Poppy and her father rescued Layla from her abusive father. Thereafter, Layla mostly lived with Poppy and her parents. Layla has expressed a determination to break the cycle of abuse and, by all appearances, has succeeded. She is fabulously wealthy, thanks to having married Mac, a successful hedge fund manager who was also one of Jack’s best friends and advisers, and given up her career to raise their two children. Layla is fiercely protective of Poppy to the point of being even more controlling than Poppy’s widowed mother.
Once you awaken, you cannot go back to sleep.
Bits and pieces of memories seem to be returning to Poppy. Or are they episodes of hypnogogia (the transitional phase between sleep and wakefulness, or between wakefulness and sleep) caused by sleep deprivation and stress? Her therapist believes they may be the latter. Poppy’s mental state makes her a compelling, but wholly unreliable narrator. She is empathetic — after all, she lost her husband in the most horrifically imaginable way — although somewhat less so as best-selling author Author Lisa Unger reveals salient details about the state of Jack and Poppy’s marriage.
Unger takes readers on a heartbreaking, but believable journey into Poppy’s splintered psyche. No marriage is perfect, including Jack and Poppy’s, but were there forces actively threatening its survival? Were those pressures coming from outside the marriage or within it? Had Poppy made different decisions that fateful morning, she is convinced that she could have saved Jack, but she must come to understand and accept the way life works. One split second, a different course of action can result in a different outcome, but we must live with the choices we made at the time. “Once a way is chosen, there is no way to know what might have happened on the other path.”
Perhaps more importantly, in her weakened state, Poppy finds herself contemplating how well she knew Jack, spurred in large part by a conversation with Mac. He tells her, “You hear about it you know, a person appears to be one thing, then you starts digging through the layers, into the past, and he’s someone else copletely. I mean, maybe there was something going on with Jack — something we didn’t know about. Something even you didn’t know about. . . . We think we know each other, right? . . . But do we really? Do we ever really know what goes on deep inside.” Indeed Mac hypothesizes about his late friend: “Maybe we only knew a piece of him. Maybe that’s all we ever know of each other.”
The book’s main theme is: What if Poppy’s nightmares are actually memories being gradually restored to her? And if so, what do they mean? Will they bring her the answers she needs about what happened to Jack in order to regain her ability to function without the aid of drugs and alcohol? And will that knowledge, coupled with sobriety, enable her to finally let go of Jack and forge a future for herself? As Poppy puts it, “I’ve been sleeping for a year. I broke apart when Jack died, and I’ve been hiding beneath a blanket of grief and pills, numbing my pain, pushing away the truth, pretending it doesn’t matter. It does matter. Who we were, what happened to him, what’s happening now. No one can fix this but me.”
The story moves at an unrelenting pace as Unger makes nearly every member of an intriguing cast of supporting characters a potential suspect. But what motive would each have to bring about Jack’s death? And how are they connected to the one valuable lead Detective Grayson, a dedicated NYC cop who is determined to keep Jack’s case from languishing among thousands of cold cases, has uncovered thus far?
Under My Skin is Unger’s sixteenth novel. Known for combining her “knowledge of the human psyche with an understanding of trauma and fear,” she is known for penning psychological thrillers that are not formulaic. Rather, she is unafraid to experiment with her writing and “frequently explores the psychology of both protagonist and villain, often blurring the lines between the two,” crafting character-driven mysteries that have earned her both loyal readers and best-seller status. Under My Skin does not disappoint. Unger takes readers down a proverbial emotional rabbit hole along with Poppy, inserting clues to what is real and what is not at deftly-timed intervals that demand continued reading and render Under My Skin “un-put-down-able.” Her insights into Poppy’s emotional struggles resonate and may well inspire readers to question their own choices and ponder how their lives might have been different. Unger provides an action-packed, but emotionally satisfying conclusion to Poppy’s story. Under My Skin is one of the best books of 2018.