Book Review: Harlan Coben’s “Just One Look”

Now, I’m fully aware this isn’t a recent release… Published in 2004, by all accounts I would have only been 6 when this first hit the shelves, and that book review (hopefully) wouldn’t have had much on this one (again, hopefully – I can only hope my writing now is a little better than my 6-year-old self). I actually had many other books lined up on the windowsill next to my bed, patiently waiting their turn to be read, but after lending my Dad Win, he had discovered this old Coben book lying around in a cupboard – unread – and had given it a go. Concluding it was even better than Win – which I thoroughly enjoyed anyway – he gave it to me to read.

So, here we are. A very overdue book review… They won’t all be new releases I’m afraid!

Disclaimer: I will mention elements of the plot for both Just One Look and Win. I wouldn’t describe them as spoilers per se, but if you’re sensitive about any kind of clues to storylines, then be aware!

The Storyline…

Coincidentally, much like Win, the storyline centred around tragic events from the distant past. In Win, this was in part the abduction of Win’s cousin, Patricia, while in Just One Look, the underlying event shaped the main character instead: a young Mum-of-two and doting wife, Grace, whose past is clouded by a traumatic shooting at a concert she attended in her youth, causing a stampede in which many died, and which left her with lasting injuries. Perhaps more comparable, Coben uses the motif of an old photograph in both to conjure up the elements of mystery and fuel the investigation. Throughout Win, an infamous snap of the Jane Street Six – a group of radicals who caused the death of multiple people – lies at the heart of the mystery entwined by Coben as the reader begins to learn the fate of each of the individuals frozen in frame. In parallel, the photograph featured in Just One Look not only lies at the story’s core, but materialises right at the onset, instigating the entire unravelling of Grace’s mundane life and activating the whole plot.

Picking up some developed photographs on her way to collect her children from school, Grace idly flicks through the pack while sat in the car, puzzled when she comes across an unfamiliar picture amongst the shots of her happy family. Like the Jane Street Six in Win, this also depicts a group of people, except – rather curiously – Grace recognises a youthful version of her husband, Jack, in the photograph, and – rather alarmingly – a girl in the centre is ominously circled and marked in red pen. Once Grace nonchalantly brings this up with her husband, that’s where everything seems to collapse around her, starting with the subsequently vanishing of her husband, prompting the beginning of an intense and intricate plot. Incredibly fast-paced, the majority of the novel takes place only across a couple of days, following multiple people and facets of the story from a third party narration.

More of a loyal fan of Win having read that one first, it would have taken a lot to relegate it in favour of Just One Look as my Dad had. Up until the very final chapter before the epilogue, the fate of this book review was sealed: it was very good, of course: Coben knows how to write an engaging thriller. Just not quite as good as Win, in my humble opinion… But then I read the final chapter – which not only tied up a few of the loose ends I was still pondering, but introduced jaw-dropping twists and revelations that genuinely left me feeling whip-lashed. Visiting home when I finished the book, I was actually sat next to my Dad at the time, who looked on triumphantly at my mind-blown expressions, telling me the ending would keep me up at night untangling it. And yes – yes, it did. The ending was incredible, and – sadly for Win – enough to persuade me.
I’m now ready to give my verdict: the storyline of Just One Look was better than Win – from my perspective at least!

The Characters…

By far my favourite character in Just One Look was not the main protagonist, Grace, or even any of the many complex and savage characters with their own interests fuelling them in helping her along the way. Instead, it was a relatively minor character, Charlaine Swain, a somewhat bored housewife who saves the day on more than one occasion. With her quick-thinking deriving presumably from too much drama-TV, wild – and honestly unreasonable – bravery in the face of danger, and commendable observation skills stemming from general nosiness and the monotony of a fizzled-out marriage, she is technically anything but a minor character, although only featuring in a number of chapters.

Another strong character in Just One Look is Eric Wu, a cold and calculated assassin, highly-trained in the art of pressure points and inflicting incomprehensible pain, who the storyline follows alongside Grace’s position. The intense descriptions of his brutality toward those he becomes intertwined with often made me physically cringe, and his unpredictability made me feel constantly on edge while reading his designated chapters. Although Wu was exciting and brilliantly crafted, unfortunately I did not find myself really rooting for the characters as much as in Win (keeping the comparison going). The main character Grace was likeable, but not quite lovable. Other than her interesting past and passion for finding her husband, she was relatively bland – and certainly nothing on Windsor Lockwood! In terms of characters alone, Win’s were much more engaging.  

Would I recommend?

If – like me – you’ve only got into Coben’s thrillers in the more recent years, particularly if you were but a wee child when his first ones were published, it is definitely worth going back and reading them, even if you feel slightly behind the times while doing so. I know some people really like to keep with the new release trends – and I do also appreciate reading the more recent books people are talking about – but the thing about books are the stories are timeless. I was 6 when Just One Look was published, and I’ve read it now at nearly 23 – the story hasn’t changed, the characters are still waiting, and the plot is knotted together with skilful precision, ready to be unravelled at any time. I’m sure slowly I’ll be filtering in more ‘old’ Coben books into my reading list because this one was certainly worth it. If you have read the newer books of his, I would recommend going back and reading Just One Look, along with plenty of other older ones I’m sure. It’s interesting to see how authors have progressed over time and how their style has developed, especially when they’ve been writing for as long as Harlan Coben!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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