Charley Webb is a controversial columnist for the Palm Beach Post who lives in the shadow of her two younger, more successful siblings. Anne is a bestselling novelist and Emily is a highly regarded journalist. She spends a lot of time looking out for youngest sibling Bram, who can't seem to get his crap together. She is also re-establishing a relationship with her mother Elizabeth, who walked out on the family when Charley was eight (she's now thirty) to live in Australia with a lesbian lover. Her father now refuses to speak to Charley because of this relationship, and the other siblings are also resistant to letting their mother back into their lives.
Charley is a single mother whose children both have different fathers. However, she is a very, caring protective mother, so she's understandably shocked when she starts receiving e-mails from somebody dubbed "a person of taste" who threatens both her and her children.
She sees her chance at respect in her own field when she is contacted out of the blue by Jill Rohmer, a young woman on death row for the vicious sex murders of three young children she used to babysit for. She is a huge fan of Charley and wants her to write a book about Jill's life. Although hesitant at first, she does see the career possibilities and starts meeting with Jill.
Jill is a strange woman, and obviously unbalanced. Charley doesn't like Jill's insistence that the two of them are alike. However, Charley keeps getting drawn back into Jill's story as she investigates Jill's past. Jill also eventually drops a tidbit about a man named Jack who supposedly coerced Jill into committing the horrendous deeds. Charley feels herself losing control in her relationship with Jill and with the other people in her life. Meanwhile, the threats against her and her children continue to come in via e-mail.
"Charley's Web" was particularly successful in exploring the theme of how people see themselves and others. Charley often thinks about her critics and family members: "you think you know me, but you don't". Jill also says this to Charley during their conversations. And to a large extent, Charley spends a lot of her time judging how the people in her life go about their daily business, but resents it when other people do it to her. She sees how much she loves her own children, and can't understand how Elizabeth could abandon her own. She can't understand why Anne would give up custody of her own children and have them live with their father. In this respect, Charley is a very well-developed and explored character, and it made her feel like a real person. More importantly, despite lacking the ability to be truly introspective, she is still very likeable. It was easy to get behind her. I understood her drive to prove others wrong, and to earn the respect that the others in her family have achieved.
The relationship between Charley and Jill is also quite complex and enthralling. Although we don't get to see inside Jill's head - we only see what Charley sees - she is nontheless compelling. How could she have done the awful things she did? How can she possibly justify it? The novel deals with some strong themes, so the story maintains an edge and an undercurrent of suspense even when not immediately focused on the threat to Charley's children or the truth of Jill's murders.
Perhaps less successful is the threat to Charley's children. There are only a couple of e-mails, and the novel isn't clear enough as to whether they are genuine threats or some Internet crackpot messing about, nor whether they are connected to Charley's dealings with Jill and investigation into her past. Nevertheless, the issue is still highly relevant, especially with the likes of Twitter and Facebook exposing just how vile people can be under the supposed veil of anonymity.
I did occasionally get tired of the time devoted to Charley's issues with her siblings and her mother. It is certainly the main crux of the novel, more so than Charley's interactions with Jill. I like my thrillers to be a little more certain about what the threat is and where it is coming from. Here, it is too vague for too long. However, like I said, there is suspense to the proceedings despite this, thanks largely to the psychological battles between Charley and Jill. Also, as I understood where all the characters were coming from, it was easy to relate to their family issues.
Finally, the climax was a bit of a letdown. Fielding was doing a terrific job of building up genuine tension, and kind of blew it with a "oh, that's it?" resolution to the proceedings.
Despite its flaws, "Charley's Web" is the best novel I have read by Joy Fielding. The characters were exceptionally well-drawn, the central themes easy to relate to, and easy to understand. The relationship between Charley and Jill was exciting enough to carry me through the occasionally dragged-out moments of family melodrama.