Family and strangers. Sometimes our compass is a bit off. Mix these up at your own peril. Read this book at your pure delight.
In this “outstanding debut thriller” (Booklist, starred review), Helen’s idyllic life—handsome architect husband, gorgeous Victorian house, and cherished baby on the way—begins to change the day she attends her first prenatal class.
There, she meets Rachel, an unpredictable single mother-to-be who doesn’t seem very maternal: she smokes, drinks, and professes little interest in parenthood. Still, Helen is drawn to her. Maybe Rachel just needs a friend. And to be honest, Helen’s a bit lonely herself. At least Rachel is fun to be with. She makes Helen laugh, invites her confidences, and distracts her from her fears.
But her increasingly erratic behavior is unsettling. And Helen’s not the only one who’s noticed. Her friends and family begin to suspect that her strange new friend may be linked to their shared history in unexpected ways. When Rachel threatens to expose a past crime that could destroy all of their lives, it becomes clear that there are more than a few secrets laying beneath the broad-leaved trees and warm lamplight of Greenwich Park.
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1. Helen AT THE TOP OF the beer-stained carpet, a taped sign on the door reads National Childbirth Trust. The doorknob feels like it might fall off if I turn it too hard. Inside there is a semicircle of chairs. A flip chart. Trestle tables with juice and biscuits. The sash windows are jammed shut.
Three other couples are here already. I am the only one on my own. We smile politely at each other, then sit in silence, too hot and uncomfortable for small talk. One bearded husband tries to yank a window open, but after a few attempts, sits down with a defeated shrug. I smile back sympathetically, fanning myself with the baby first-aid leaflet I found on a chair. We teeter like bowling pins, our swollen bellies resting on our laps, arching our backs, our knees apart, grimacing.
As the room fills, I glance at the clock on the wall. Past six thirty. Where are they? I keep looking at my phone, waiting for the flash of response to my messages. But nobody replies.
I’d peeled away from the office early, wanting to get here on time. I hadn’t been the only one. The air-conditioning has been broken for days. By this afternoon the place had been half empty, just a few desk fans still whirring limply into the flushed faces of middle-aged men.
When I picked up my bag and flicked my screen off, I had glanced at Tom, but he’d been hunched on a call to building services, complaining about the temperature for the third time that day. I’d tried to catch his eye with a sort of awkward half wave, but he’d barely acknowledged me, gesturing me away with a sideways glance at my belly, his other hand still clutching the phone to his ear. I think he’d forgotten today was my last day.
Unable to face the slow suffocation of the Tube, I’d decided to walk instead. The glare had been blinding. Heat bounced off pavements and crosswalks, shimmered between cars and buses. Horns honked in sweaty frustration. It is all anyone is talking about, the heatwave. No one can remember a summer like it. We are constantly reminded to stay in the shade, carry a bottle of water. It hasn’t rained for weeks. Shops are selling out of fans, ice packs, garden umbrellas. There is talk of a garden hose ban.
I decided to cut across the park, between the Observatory and the Royal Naval College. The hazy light seemed to soften the edges around everything. Office workers were spread out on the yellowing grass, shoes kicked off, ties loosened, sunglasses on. They were drinking gin and tonics from cans, sharing Kettle chips, speaking slightly too loudly to each other, the way people do after a few drinks. It had felt like walking past a party, one I hadn’t been invited to. I had to remember not to stare. It can be hard not to stare at happy people. They are mesmerizing somehow.
It was hot like this the summer we graduated from Cambridge. We used to punt down the river, the four of us. Serena and me sunbathing. Rory punting. Daniel sorting the drinks out, his pale skin reddening in the heat. We’d veer into banks, get tangled in curtains of weeping willow, the sky cloudless, the sunlight catching sequin-bright on the clear waters of the Cam. It felt as if the summer would go on forever. When it ended, I feared we would lose the closeness we felt back then. But we didn’t. Rory and Serena came to live in Greenwich, on the other side of the park. Daniel went to work with Rory at the family firm. And now, there’s our babies, due just two weeks apart.
The course leader is here now. She jams the door open with a folded beer coaster, then picks up a sticky label and writes her name on it with a thick green marker: SONIA. She presses the label onto her chest, then dumps a faded shopping bag and some Tesco grocery bags next to the flip chart. A whiskery braid runs almost the length of her spine.
“Right,” says Sonia. “Shall we start?”
She begins a practiced monologue about labor, pain relief, and Caesareans, one eyelid flickering during the embarrassing parts. Occasionally she is forced to raise her voice over a crash of pots and pans, or a burst of expletives, from the pub kitchen on the floor below.
After she has been speaking for a few minutes, I glance down at my phone screen again, just as a message flashes up from Daniel. I open it. Meeting only just finished, he says. Heading home now. Train gets in at 10. He is so sorry again about the class, says again that he wishes he could be there with me. He’ll make it up to me, he says.
I know he would be here if he could, that he is gutted to have had to let me down. That this last-minute crisis meeting just came at a terrible moment. At the same time, I can’t help feeling so disappointed. I’d been excited about these classes, about doing them together, like proper expectant parents.
Sonia starts to pull objects from the grocery bags: a pelvis—through which she squeezes a fully dressed plastic newborn—knit nipples, a pair of forceps, a suction cup. The men look horrified, the women sweaty and anxious. We pass the objects around the circle, trying bravely to smile at each other.
The chairs to my left are still empty. The bearded man has to lean right over them to hand me the objects as they come around. I glance down at the name tags I wrote out for Rory and Serena, sitting on their vacant seats. Those two were supposed to be here at least, to keep me company, make me feel less alone. I feel foolish, like a woman who has invented two imaginary friends. Could Serena really have just forgotten?
Another message comes through. It’s from Serena. My heart sinks. Somehow, deep down, even as I tap to open it, I know what it’s going to say.
Hey, Helen! I know it’s the first prenatal class tonight. Hope you don’t mind, but I think Rory and I might skip them after all. I was actually looking online and I found these other ones that look a bit more my thing—beautiful bump classes—they’re supposed to be a bit less preachy, and they meet in the organic bakery. I was thinking I might try those instead. So sorry to cancel at the last minute. Have fun!
Sonia is brandishing a red marker at her flip chart now. “So. Can anyone tell me what they know about breastfeeding?”
I try to focus on the breastfeeding discussion. It is not going well. Most of the mothers are staring at the floor. One mutters something about positioning, another offers an anecdote about a friend who kept breast milk in the fridge.
“Anyone else?” Sonia is flagging now, half-moons of perspiration spreading from under the arms of her T-shirt.
Just at this moment, a girl walks in, slamming the door behind her. Sonia winces.
“Fucking hell. Sorry, everyone,” she announces loudly. She slips a metallic-gold backpack off one shoulder and drops it down on the floor with a thud. It lands inches from my foot.
“Oops.” She grins, one hand on her bump.
Everyone stares. Sonia, still standing in front of the flip chart with her red marker pen held aloft, eyes the girl coldly. The only things written on her flip chart so far are CORRECT POSITION (NIPPLE) and STORE IN FRIDGE.
The girl points a purple-painted fingernail at the seat next to me, the one I had reserved for Serena. “This chair taken?”
I hesitate, then shake my head. I feel the eyes of the other couples on me as I haul my bags over to the other side, scrape my chair out a little to make more room.
Sonia sighs. “Anyone else?”
The flip chart charade continues for a few further minutes. The women begin to shift in their chairs, exchange raised eyebrows, uncomfortable glances. I try to concentrate. The girl next to me, the latecomer, is chewing gum. All I seem to be able to hear is the snap of it between her teeth as her jaw opens and closes. When I glance sideways at her, I glimpse it between her teeth, a neon-pink pellet, an artificial cherry scent. She catches my eye, grinning again, as if the whole thing is hilarious.
Finally, Sonia surrenders, pulling the back of her arm across the moisture on her brow. “OK,” she says. “Shall we take a short break?”
A murmur of relief goes up. All the women waddle toward the jugs of juice, and I quickly follow them. Soon they are grouping up, the room filling with the noise of chatter. I am being left behind. I feel a plummeting panic. No Daniel, no Rory, no Serena. How do people make friends? What would Serena do?
I hover on the edge of a group, trying to look casual, waiting to be included. But there never seems to be a good moment to interject. I open my mouth to speak a few times, but on each occasion, someone else speaks first. I end up closing my mouth again, like a fish drowning in air. I feel the trickle of my anxiety begin, the nerve center at the back of my head starting to alarm. I am uncomfortably warm. Can’t someone get that window open?
The girl who came in late appears at my side. She is holding two enormous glasses of what appears to be cold white wine, clouds of condensation on the side of the glass.
“Do you want one? I thought you looked like you might need a real drink. One a day can’t hurt, surely.”
She holds out the glass in front of me. Her painted fingernails are short and chewed. She looks very young—perhaps she just has one of those faces. Round, dimpled, babyish. Yet when she smiles, there is something wolfish in it, her canine teeth protruding slightly, small but sharp.
“What’s the deal, then?”
I blink at her. “I beg your pardon?”
The girl places the glasses of wine down on a side table, gestures to the two chairs next to me, the name tags Rory and Serena still lying on them. “Just wondered what the setup was.” She shrugs. Then her face snaps back at me, her eyes wide, her fingers pressed to her mouth. “You’re not a surrogate, are you?” She laughs. “That would be typical, wouldn’t it? Didn’t even want it, and now you’re left holding the baby!”
The girl hoots. I look over her shoulder, try to catch the eye of one of the other women. But none return my gaze, so I am forced to reply. I clear my throat.
“No, um. No. I’m not.” I try to laugh. “It’s just that my husband, Daniel, couldn’t make it tonight.” I shake my head slightly, as if it’s just one of those things, doesn’t matter.
I pause, before realizing she is waiting for an explanation about the two other empty seats.
“The other couple is my brother and his wife. Rory and Serena. They’re expecting in the same month as us. We’d been planning to do the classes together, as a foursome, but... I think they... obviously decided against it in the end.”
The girl smiles sympathetically. “Hopeless. Never mind, you can team up with me, can’t you?” She picks the glass up again. “Shall we have this drink, then?”
“Thanks,” I say hesitantly. “But I’m not sure...”
Why am I incapable of completing my own sentences? I should just say no, thank you, I would rather not drink. I mean, I’m pregnant. We both are. Surely I don’t have to spell it out?
“Oh, I know what you’re saying,” she booms, rolling her eyes and glancing around the room. “Ridiculous, isn’t it? All this pressure! The way they change the advice all the time! One minute you can drink, the next minute you can’t, then you can ‘in moderation,’ then it’s basically illegal! Bloody doctors.”
I clear my throat, unsure how to answer. I am very aware now of the gaze of the other women in the room, looking from me to the girl and the wine, and back.
“Well, fuck doctors,” she continues. “Our mums all got smashed when they were pregnant. We all bloody survived!” She is speaking far too loudly. The room is silent, and people are starting to openly stare.
The girl looks over at the other mothers, registers their disapproving glances, then raises her eyebrows at me and giggles. She holds the wineglass aloft to toast her own sentiment. She brings the glass to her lips. “Fuck the NHS,” she spits. “That’s what I say.” She tips the glass to her lips and drinks. As she does so, I notice one or two of the other mothers actually wince.
The girl picks up the drink she has brought for me. She holds it out, like a threat, or a dare.
“Come on,” she hisses. Her eyes flick down to my name badge. “You know you want to... Helen.”
Later, after everything, I will come to wonder why I act as I do in this moment. For even now, there is something about this girl. Something that makes me want to edge away, to look for a place of safety. Like the feeling of being on a cliff-top path, when the wind is just a little too strong at your back.
But I don’t step away. I take the wine. And as I do, the other women turn their heads, as if by taking it I have answered all their questions. I want to tell them I’m just being polite, that I have no intention of actually drinking it. But they are already looking the other way.
“Thanks,” I say weakly.
“Nice to meet you, Helen. I’m Rachel.”
And then Rachel clinks her glass against mine, knocks back another deep glug, and winks at me, as if we share a secret.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Greenwich Park includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Helen’s idyllic life—handsome architect husband, gorgeous Victorian house, and cherished baby on the way (after years of trying)—begins to change the day she attends her first prenatal class and meets Rachel, an unpredictable single mother-to-be. Rachel doesn’t seem very maternal: she smokes, drinks, and professes little interest in parenthood. Still, Helen is drawn to her. Maybe Rachel just needs a friend. And to be honest, Helen’s a bit lonely herself. At least Rachel is fun to be with. She makes Helen laugh, invites her confidences, and distracts her from her fears.
But her increasingly erratic behavior is unsettling. And Helen’s not the only one who’s noticed. Her friends and family begin to suspect that her strange new friend may be linked to their shared history in unexpected ways. When Rachel threatens to expose a past crime that could destroy all of their lives, it becomes clear that there are more than a few secrets lying beneath the broad-leaved trees and warm lamplight of Greenwich Park.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. When Helen first meets Rachel at the prenatal class she’s signed up for, Helen notices that Rachel behaves relatively carelessly in navigating her own pregnancy. Helen’s quiet judgments suggest a combination of pity, scorn, and envy for her new friend, who doesn’t seem to be burdened by the same loss and desperation for the perfect family that has been plaguing Helen. We later learn that Rachel has her own dark history, and that she offers more to Helen than Helen realizes. Discuss first impressions. Was there a time when you learned something unexpected, yet deeply affecting, about someone you’d only just met?
2. Helen’s husband, Daniel, and her brother Rory work together at her father’s old company, Haverstock. We’re made aware of Rory’s relative professional irresponsibility as well as Daniel’s often frustrated attempts to fill the gap left behind by Helen’s father, Richard. Yet Daniel, who seems overburdened by expectation, remains far from the perfect husband, and his future as a father seems less hopeful. In what ways does Daniel fulfill the role of the ideal husband? How can those traits in turn make him less suited to provide care and understanding?
3. The book is broken into multiple perspectives: we see the events of Greenwich Park unfold through Helen, Katie, and Serena, as well as other voices whose identities aren’t always clear. Furthermore, events continue to happen, or have happened in the past, that we as readers aren’t always made privy to in the course of the story. How does this affect the narrative progression of the novel? Do you feel all your questions have been answered at the end of the book? Discuss whether this reflects the nature of relationships inside the novel.
4. Helen, Daniel, Rory, and Serena were all college companions before the events of Greenwich Park, and we meet them at a time when their lives appear to have grown relatively stable. Though they’ve been friends for a long time, was it possible to spot the potential cracks in their relationships earlier on? What is required for a close friendship to last?
5. Early in Greenwich Park, Katie, who works as a reporter, cinches an exclusive interview with the survivor of a closing sexual assault case just as the threads in the relationships between Rachel, Helen, and Helen’s family begin to twist. While on the job, Katie comes face-to-face with the aftershocks of trauma, managing to persuade a hurt, vulnerable woman to share her story. How does Katie’s impactful career accomplishment affect the way she feels about what unfolds with Rachel? Discuss how personal experience can change the way one views trauma.
6. The crack in the new foundation being laid in Helen and Daniel’s cellar appears shortly after Helen’s house party just as we learn that Rachel has gone missing. At the heart of the Greenwich house, this crack is highly symbolic as key schisms come to bear in the ties between Helen, Daniel, Rory, Serena, and Charlie. However, we also begin to learn several important truths long hidden about the main characters in the novel. Discuss if a breaking point was inevitable in the lives of Helen and her family. How does this one particular “crack in the foundation” affect the reading of Greenwich Park?
7. Helen’s family home at Greenwich Park—and indeed the homes of Serena and Rory, Charlie, Katie, and even Rachel—all play an important thematic role in the novel. Throughout the book, Greenwich Park is in the process of renovation, undergoing significant change that coincides with Helen’s pregnancy. We also learn that the construction belies deeper mechanisms of change at play as the truth behind Rachel and why she’s entered into the lives of the main characters is revealed. Discuss what Greenwich Park has to say about what makes a home. How do characters in the novel react when their homes are threatened, either from outside or within?
8. Katie learns more about Rachel’s family after paying her father, John, a visit in Cambridge on her day off. It grows increasingly apparent that Rachel comes from what seems like a broken family. In what ways do the key differences between Rachel and Helen’s upbringings seem visible earlier in the novel before we ever follow Katie to meet Rachel’s father? Is it possible, and if so, how, that Rachel and Helen’s childhoods were at all similar?
9. The reader is able to closely follow Helen’s pregnancy since sections of the novel are distinguished by how far along Helen is in her term. Helen is particularly protective about this pregnancy, having previously struggled with getting pregnant and then miscarrying. Helen even on occasion compares her own experience with that of her brothers’ partners, Serena and Maja. Though pregnancy is markedly an experience definitive of motherhood, how does it reveal other aspects of Helen throughout Greenwich Park? What does it offer Helen, as well as her husband, Daniel, that they don’t seem to have had before?
10. When the police arrive at Helen’s doorstep, we receive our first in-text confirmation that things with Rachel, though always somewhat mysterious, have indeed taken a turn for the grim. In response to the officers inquiring about Rachel’s whereabouts, Helen responds saying that Rachel has gone to stay with her mother, as evidenced by a text message Rachel has sent her. Later, Helen finds herself at a loss regarding what has unfolded the night of her party, when we last see Rachel. At what point were you able to detect that something was awry? Was it during the party? Or before? Discuss what aspects of Greenwich Park lend themselves to suspense.
11. When Helen learns the truth about what has happened to Rachel, as well as many truths about Daniel and then Serena, she still seems unable to come to terms with the details of what has happened. What does Helen hang on to even after discovering the reality of what those close to her have done? Discuss the difficulty of coming to terms with knowing that someone isn’t who they’ve made themselves out to be.
12. When baby Leo James is born, we learn that his growth in the final months of his term inside Helen was stunted, potentially by drugs. Serena later quietly admits to drugging Helen with Helen’s own medication. Discuss moments in Greenwich Park where Helen’s point of view seemed blurred. Did you also find yourself losing track of moments, things, or people in the book?
13. Serena evidences that she’s pulled many of the invisible strings that drive the events of the novel in its final moments. Can you pinpoint instances where her behavior or language might indicate this? Discuss other potential suspects you may have considered behind Rachel’s disappearance.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. We aren’t shown the subsequent court case after Daniel is arrested. Together with your group, assign a judge, a few members of a jury, a defendant, a plaintiff, and attorneys representing each side to try and re-create what a trial might have looked like. In your re-creation, have the defendant and plaintiff teams try to frame the events of the novel as they might have viewed it. How does your judge and jury rule?
2. Greenwich Park is told from many points of view and the truth arises from those varying perspectives. Split your reading group into four small teams: the first devises a short scenario lasting a few minutes, complete with a beginning, middle, and end, to perform for the other three to watch. After, allow each group in succession to elaborate briefly on a portion of what happened. Then reconvene and discuss the accuracy of their description, as well as what you’ve discovered from how each group understands the scenario that was performed.
3. Write all of the main characters’ names on pieces of paper and allow each member in your reading group to draw them one by one. Each member must then retell the events of Greenwich Park as though the character whom they’ve drawn was the ultimate mastermind behind the mysterious twists and turns in the novel. Reflect on whether this exercise was easy or difficult to do.