Cass and Ryan Connor have achieved family nirvana. With three kids between them, a cat and a yard, a home they built and feathered, they seem to have the Modern Family dream. Their family, including Cass' two children from previous relationships, has recently moved to Portland —a new start for their new lives. Cass and Ryan have stable, successful careers, and they are happy. But trouble begins almost imperceptibly. First with small omissions and white lies that happen daily in any marital bedroom. They seem insignificant, but they are quickly followed by a series of denials and feints that mushroom and then cyclone in menace.
With life-or-death stakes and irreversible consequences, Poison is a chilling and irresistible reminder that the closest bond designed to protect and provide for each other and for children can change in a minute.
In Niederhoffer's engrossing fourth novel (after Love and Happiness), a journalism professor's area of expertise becomes all too relevant when she starts to think her husband is trying to kill her. After Cass Phillips, a 40-year-old widowed mother of two, remarries Ryan, they relocate for a change of pace from New York to Madrona, a suburb of Seattle where Cass knows no one except for Nora, who sells them their new house. Cass teaches journalism at a local university, where she breaks down how prosecutors use institutional misogyny to destroy the accounts of female witnesses. Parallels begin to appear between the hypothetical victims in Cass's lessons and her deteriorating relationship with Ryan he gaslights her, verbally abuses her, and issues veiled threats. Niederhoffer handles this aspect of the narrative expertly: Cass finds hair that doesn't belong to her in the drain and other signs (Ryan keeps buying her foods with high arsenic content) and, along with Nora, attempts to implicate Ryan without losing custody of her toddler, Sam. Though quite the page-turner, the story falters in its last act with a clunky ruse that Cass springs in hopes of nabbing Ryan. It also ends abruptly for a book that is otherwise meticulous in its explanations and details. Nevertheless, this is a chilling and entertaining novel.