It’s nice to go on a vacation, isn’t it? Especially if it is somewhere by the sea and you have been promised long, sunny days of lounging and drinking margaritas by the pool of the lovely house where you are staying. Phoebe Wong, a 40-something and mother to two-year-old JoJo is finally out of the weary British winter – she’s in Florida to meet her long-distance American boyfriend, Carter. He works in New York and she in London, and their lives are nothing alike.

But the Internet is a vast field of endless possibilities – of all the apps you could think of, they meet on LinkedIn. After all, any app can be a dating app if you try hard enough and are incredibly lucky. Carter has the looks, charm, and money, and most importantly, does not mind Phoebe’s role as a single mother. Since they are continents apart, meeting each other often is difficult – which in all honesty, is entirely understandable in today’s fast-paced and far-fetched dating world.

Endless miseries and mysteries

When Phoebe and JoJo set off for Key West, Florida, she thinks the days ahead would be the real “American Dream” – the sun, sea, good food and drinks, and spending time with her boyfriend. Not there yet. Sorry. Carter’s ominous text message greets her as soon as she lands in Key West. He is unable to make it from New York City but promises to be with her and her daughter tomorrow. A minor bump in the road…nothing to worry about. Exhausted by the heat and the long journey, Phoebe falls into a deep sleep only to wake up to being robbed. Her passport, money, and a small item of jewellery are gone. Shaken by the incident and Carter’s continued delay, Phoebe wonders if the vacation is worth the tests she’s being put through. Phoebe’s endless run-ins with miseries puts me to test too – what is happening and when will Phoebe realise that something is obviously not right about her relationship?

Roberta, a friendly neighbour turns up with food and reassurance after hearing about the break-in. She quickly assumes her place in Phoebe and JoJo’s world and turns up – in the most unexpected manner – whenever the mother-daughter duo find themselves in trouble. Phoebe begins to rely on her and apart from the cursory details about her life, Roberta remains a stranger to her. And more interestingly, for other people around her, the name “Roberta” doesn’t really ring a bell. Who is Roberta and what is her deal?

The reader identifies these questions at the very beginning though Phoebe is slow to grasp. And as Phoebe’s vacation gets increasingly un-vacation-like, the readers also begin to wonder, Where is Carter? Who is Carter? What is the truth about the “vacation home” and why does it so often have to undergo repair work?

The questions continue to build as Phoebe, and the reader, are assailed with doubts. The elements of Gothic literature also start to pop up – shady characters, a furtive lover, and a house with secrets of its own. The setting brings little cheer despite being sunny Florida. Phoebe is clearly in trouble and caught in this mess is her two-year-old daughter, JoJo. The sooner they can get out, the better.

A Floridian Gothic?

When Carter finally turns up after many days, more questions arise than they are answered. There are strange phone calls, Carter asks Phoebe to stay away from the friends she has made and they in turn advise her to leave as soon as she can. Ngeow teases the tension for as long as she can – she builds on the characters’ insecurities, shows how love can be disconcerting, and puts a helpless mother-daughter duo in the middle of it all. The grimness of the situation is somewhat negated by Carter’s proposal to Phoebe – he wants to marry her. Too soon, too weird, and too sudden? I thought so too.

However, as with everything else in Phoebe’s life, this happiness is short-lived too. This time Carter is assaulted in their home and unable to bear the mysteries any longer, Phoebe starts to seek answers. Broken limbs, bloodied nose, and broken hearts – this is a nightmare disguised as a vacation. By this point, I was longing for a break. Either end Phoebe’s misery or end mine. The labyrinthine mysteries surrounding the house and Carter showed no signs of resolution. But when Phoebe puts a close ear to the whispers in the house and on the streets, the secrets tumble out one after the other. After a long wait and a tedious build-up, the unravelling happens a little too quickly. In classic Gothic fashion, the house is sinister, no one is who they claim to be, and unknown relationships make themselves known as the characters travel through time to arrive at the present moment of confrontation.

I found the writing rather uninspired. Sample this: “No one had fired up such a passion in her, to live, love, and laugh.” Thankfully, the line appears at the end of the book or I very likely would have packed up reading the moment I encountered it. Some clichés are best not replicated on paper. The American Boyfriend is a good holiday read. It moves at a leisurely pace which, now that I think about it, is in keeping with the dazed state of being on a vacation. The suspense and the eventual reveal are not exactly ingenious though I suppose relocating a Gothic mystery from a cold, damp, isolated house to a sunny, well-ventilated house in Florida makes for an interesting experiment.

The American Boyfriend, Ivy Ngeow, Penguin South East Asia.