A Mother, a Masked Intruder, and a Story That Messes With Your Mind
By BETH HARPAZ
A mother at home with two young children encounters a masked intruder who seems to know everything about her, from her ATM password to her darkest secrets. How could a stranger know her so well, and what does this interloper want? The answers will keep readers engrossed in The Need, a new novel from Brooklyn College Professor Helen Phillips.
The book offers the suspense of a thriller, the mood of a horror movie, and the supernatural premise of a ghost story. Phillips says she was aiming for the “propulsive plot” of a thriller, but acknowledges that The Need is hard to categorize: “I was borrowing from any genre I needed to try to create and capture this experience.”
She added that the story “will mess with your mind. I almost feel like there should be a warning label on the book: ‘Don’t read it if you’re home alone with your children.’”
The Need is also something of an allegory for motherhood. The protagonist, Molly, is overwhelmed balancing the demands of her family and her job, and Phillips says the story could be interpreted as “a metaphor for the way we live.” But is Molly simply experiencing an extreme version of the anxiety many parents feel, or has she lost her grip on reality? Most readers will probably suspend their disbelief and accept the notion that Molly has entered some otherworldly dimension, but Phillips isn’t ruling anything out: “One intention I had was to leave a lot of space for the reader to bring their own experiences to it.”
Phillips dedicated the book to her mother and to her sister, Katherine, who died at age 32 of complications from a rare neurological disorder, Rett syndrome, that left her unable to walk, talk, or feed herself. Katherine died shortly after Phillips’ first child was born, and as the joy of becoming a mother mingled with grief from her loss, Phillips says she “knew there was some book in me trying to make sense of it all.”
She reflected on the notion that a “twist of fate” could upend anyone’s life in a moment: “Is that car going to hit you? Is your kid going to be diagnosed with something?” One takeaway from The Need, she said, is “the hope that we can have more empathy for other people who might be experiencing some grief that we can’t even imagine.”
The Need has already garnered praise from The New York Times, New York Magazine, and others. Phillips will be promoting The Need on a book tour will take her from New York to California, Washington State, New Mexico, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Maine.