We have good news for western Queens fans of thrillers like “The Girl on the Train”: there’s a new novel in town, and, in fact, it just happens to be set in our town.
“Love Her Madly,” a novel by M. Elizabeth Lee, just hit the shelves, and the last third of the book is set in Astoria.
Lee lives in Jackson Heights now, but she was an Astoria resident at the time she penned the novel.
“When I was writing the book in Astoria, I could imagine these characters walking the streets and waiting for the train next to me,” Lee said.
In “Love Her Madly,” two college friends, Glo and Cyn, fall for the same guy, Raj. They decide to share him, and everything goes smoothly — at first. But tension between the best friends boils over during a study abroad trip to Costa Rica, and then Cyn disappears, leaving Glo searching for answers. The novel is told from Glo’s point of view.
“It’s a thriller and a bit of a mystery, but it’s also got a strong emotional core,” Lee said. “At the core of the story is the friendship between these two women.”
Years after Cyn’s disappearance, Glo, an attorney, and Raj, an actor, are living together in Astoria. They begin having sightings in Manhattan of a woman who looks like Cyn.
“In Manhattan, that’s where they have most of the sightings of this woman they think might be their dead friend,” Lee said. “When the main character is back in Astoria, that’s where they feel safe, because that’s where they moved to, they settled down and started their lives and it feels like everything’s going to be OK there, but even that is an illusion.”
While Glo is running in Astoria Park, she thinks for a split second that she sees Cyn.
“She goes running in Astoria Park in the morning and it’s very moody and cloudy and ominous, and it’s supposed to mirror her mental state, her anxiety about this ghost from the past who seems to be returning and she doesn’t know why,” Lee said. “The park is such a majestic place, but you also get the sense of Manhattan in the distance. In my book it’s a distant threat; whatever is stalking Glo is over there in the city, and where she is, she still feels separate from that. The park there is very iconic with the bridge rising in the distance, and Manhattan doesn’t exist if it’s foggy.”
“Love Her Madly” has drawn comparisons to not only Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train” but also other popular thrillers like Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” Kimberly McCreight’s “Reconstructing Amelia” and Mary Kubica’s “The Good Girl.”
“The thing that I think is different about ‘Love Her Madly’ than a lot of thrillers that are out there is that a lot of thrillers have a tone that’s more consistently dark, while ‘Love Her Madly,’ until things begin to go wrong, has a comedic edge to it,” Lee said. “It doesn’t take itself super seriously, so when things do go down, it’s like, ‘Whoa — what just happened?’ I tried to make it so it’s a ride. I don’t like to feel like I’m being dragged through one desperately dismal situation to another, so I wanted to have moments that people could relate to in real life, because nothing is all sadness or all comedy. It’s all mixed together.”
“Love Her Madly” had its launch party at the Astoria Bookshop on Aug. 16.
“I hope that people in Queens get a kick out of [the novel] because the characters live in Astoria and they go and do Astoria things,” Lee said.
Lee said that it “just felt right” to set the last part of the story in western Queens because “it’s who the characters were. They’re kind of chill. My characters are a little more laid-back and they’re not very status-conscious; they’re just trying to live a happy life and do the things that they love, and I think Astoria’s a very nurturing place for that. It’s also a place full of strivers and dreamers. It’s a place where you can relax and live your life and go about what you want to do without feeling judged or watched.”
Lee herself could be described as a dreamer; she moved to New York to be an actress right after graduating from college in Florida. It was a wonderful experience, she said, but “it became a little discouraging because I kept getting the same girlfriend roles.”
After five years of auditioning and acting, she took the initiative to start writing her own short scripts and produce them with different directors.
“It was so exciting and so much fun that I began to write full-length screenplays,” she said. “Each time we did it, it got better; it got more fun. It was so much fun to create something with women in powerful roles, in interesting roles, as full-on people, actual people.”
Then, Lee and her husband took a year away from the city to travel.
“I wasn’t able to do the acting and the filmmaking, so I decided that I was going to concentrate on writing a more long-form piece, and that’s where ‘Love Her Madly’ came from.”
When she returned home to Astoria, she took her handwritten work and started writing it on a computer. Six months later, it was a book, she said.
“[Queens is] a great place to work and to write because it is so diverse,” she said. “It’s really inspiring that despite the political climate we’re in, where there’s allegations that being surrounded by immigrants makes life dangerous, it actually makes life beautiful. It’s touching to see how well and how peacefully everyone interacts. I wish more people could come here to see how it really is.”
Lee appreciates the artistic community in western Queens.
“It’s really a wonderful borough because people are all facing the same challenges — nobody’s got a tremendous platform or millions of dollars to do everything they’d like to do with their art,” Lee said. “There’s a real sense of community because all we really have is each other.”
This month, Lee and her writing partner have a screenplay taking part in IFP Film Week, which is a gathering of people in the film industry, to try to get funding for the project. Lee describes the screenplay as a “female-centric buddy horror comedy.” Additionally, Lee has another novel on the way.