A Couple’s Retreat in the Woods Goes Awry in This Thriller

THE EDEN TEST, by Adam Sternbergh

A woman surprises her husband with a weeklong couples’ retreat in “The Eden Test,” Adam Sternbergh’s new thriller. Threat shimmers around their isolated cabin, though one suspects that nothing would force them to endure anything more painful than a week of “working on the relationship.”

On their first date, three years earlier, Daisy licked a smudge of crème brûlée off Craig’s chin, a mischievous gesture that bound them together. They spent weekends together eating croissants and reading the paper, “its sections unfurled all around them like blueprints for some brazen upcoming heist.” “The Eden Test” shows how a couple in love can seem like a two-person army, fugitives from the outside world. As the novel’s epigraph, from Adam Phillips, puts it, “A couple is a conspiracy in search of a crime.”

Now, Daisy and Craig appear less like co-conspirators than adversaries. The denim overalls that Craig used to strip off Daisy have become “those [expletive] overalls she always wears.” And Daisy is cleareyed about Craig’s failings, from his infidelities to his pretension about restaurants, “as though he’d studied in the finest culinary schools of Europe, rather than being just another dude in Brooklyn with a credit card and a subscription to Bon Appétit.” Craig is preparing to leave her for his mistress, and Daisy hasn’t been entirely honest with him, either.

In stylish prose, Sternbergh constructs a lustrous domestic suspense novel, unfolding over the couple’s week at the cabin in upstate New York. The house has a claw-foot tub, board games and a porch facing a lake. It could be paradise, though the novel’s flash-forward prologue shows paramedics arriving to remove two bodies from the property.

As the tension escalates, the couple’s decision to stay at the cabin may strain belief, but their willing entrapment plays off the novel’s theme of commitment. Every morning, an envelope arrives with a question for the couple to discuss; the retreat’s promise is “Seven Days, Seven Questions, Forever Changed.” The questions are suitably provocative: “Would you change for me?” “Would you sacrifice for me?” “Would you die for me?” Through the questions, Sternbergh deftly folds a discussion of marital psychology inside a mystery plot.

Daisy and Craig’s marriage is laid bare, from the banal — his running shoes stinking by the front door, her hair clogging “the shower drain, like some twisted sea creature, a tiny kraken” — to the abstract. Why did their love curdle? And what might they do to each other next?

The novel has an almost midcentury coolness in tone, and Daisy, an actor, is like a Hitchcock blonde, self-contained and enigmatic. Daisy was once a “loudmouth theater kid,” and why she turned herself into a cipher gives her story a raw, messy heart, beating beneath all its layers of polished artifice.

Before coming to the cabin, Daisy filmed a scene for a television thriller, in which her character is shot through a car windshield. Capsules full of Vaseline and glitter are fired at the windshield, “splattering on contact to convincingly simulate bullet holes on the glass.” Similar moments of stagecraft and misdirection recur in “The Eden Test,” and the crisp dialogue has the intensity and compression of a stage play.

After meeting the retreat’s founders, a “fiercely married” older couple, Daisy says to Craig: “That could be us one day.”

“What? Weirdo hippies living in the woods?”

“No,” says Daisy. “Happy.”

“The Eden Test” is deliciously entertaining, but its portrait of a marriage in trouble is nuanced and serious, hopeful and melancholy. There are real impacts under its glitter.

Flynn Berry is the author of “Northern Spy,” “A Double Life” and “Under the Harrow.”

THE EDEN TEST | By Adam Sternbergh | 320 pp. | Flatiron Books | $27.99

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