Book: “Bath Haus” by P.J. Vernon
Publishing Info: Doubleday Books, June 2021
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: Oliver Park, a young recovering addict from Indiana, finally has everything he ever wanted: sobriety and a loving, wealthy partner in Nathan, a prominent DC trauma surgeon. Despite their difference in age and disparate backgrounds, they’ve made a perfect life together. With everything to lose, Oliver shouldn’t be visiting Haus, a gay bathhouse. But through the entrance he goes, and it’s a line crossed. Inside, he follows a man into a private room, and it’s the final line. Whatever happens next, Nathan can never know. But then, everything goes wrong, terribly wrong, and Oliver barely escapes with his life. He races home in full-blown terror as the hand-shaped bruise grows dark on his neck. The truth will destroy Nathan and everything they have together, so Oliver does the thing he used to do so well: he lies.
What follows is a classic runaway-train narrative, full of the exquisite escalations, edge-of-your-seat thrills, and oh-my-god twists. P. J. Vernon’s Bath Haus is a scintillating thriller with an emotional punch, perfect for readers curious for their next must-read novel.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!
I love seeing the books that some of my favorite authors are reading. Usually I can gauge if I’m going to mesh well with a book if an author I really trust is raving about it. So when Caroline Kepnes made mention of “Bath Haus” by P.J. Vernon, I was definitely curious to pick it up. I went in with certain expectations, most of them falling into the lurid. But almost immediately I realized that “Bath Haus” was going to be not only high octane and like a runaway freight train, it was also going to be super, super dark and disturbing.
From the jump “Bath Haus” is off the rails, and while that may not work in some authors hands, Vernon has no problem starting at fifty and working his way ever upward. We have two perspectives in this book. The first is Oliver, the young former addict who has found himself in a lavish, and highly controlled, relationship with Nathan. Oliver’s POV starts with almost getting strangled while attempting a hook up at a bath house, who then finds himself having to lie to his lover, and then being stalked by his attacker. While another thriller may have kept it here on this familiar trajectory, we have a second POV, of Nathan, Oliver’s older partner. Nathan is controlling, hot tempered but able to mask it, and suspicious of anyone and anything that may get between him and Oliver. And it’s because of this that “Bath Haus” has a whole other layer of suspense. Because not only is Oliver finding himself in a web with Kristian, his mysterious and menacing attacker, you as the reader see that he is ALSO potentially in danger due to his relationship with Nathan, which is unhealthy at best and possibly deranged. Not that Oliver knows this. Because of all these angles, the suspense was at a constant and Vernon managed to amp it up without it feeling histrionic or melodramatic. The flip side of this, however, is that at times the complexity wasn’t there for the characters. This applies more to Nathan, as he has a number of tropes that are pretty par for the course when it comes to his characterization. It didn’t take away from the entertainment, but it wasn’t really doing anything new in that regard.
And what’s more, it kept me guessing! There are enough twists, well crafted red herrings, and revelations in this book that I was in the dark a majority of the time. Things that could have been tacked on in other instances felt necessary, and by the time we did hit surprise after surprise I realized that while I perhaps came close to guessing a twist or two, I was off enough that the reveals felt fresh and surprising. I also really enjoyed how Vernon told the story through not only two different perspectives, but also through a bit of time jumping. This was mostly for Oliver’s benefit, as it really let the reader get into his mind, his past, and his traumas that helped explain a lot about the decisions that he makes as the book goes on. Being able to get this insight really helped, especially when Oliver makes decisions that may come off as really, really stupid. At least you get information as to why he’s making the stupid choice. Especially when stupid choice after stupid choice builds up to so. many. moments where the tension is so taut it felt like it would snap. There were numerous moments where my jaw dropped open and I gasped, or had to close my Kindle and walk away for a bit just to gather my bearings.
All of this said, I really need to tell people that this book is FILLED with content warnings. I almost described this as an erotic thriller at first, just because of some of the themes and elements, but stopped myself because the content isn’t really meant to be titillating. From sexual assault to mental and physical abuse to really disturbing scenes of violence, “Bath Haus” is dark and graphic and it doesn’t pull punches. It never felt distasteful to me, but it pushes boundaries and it is incredibly unsettling.
“Bath Haus” isn’t going to be for the faint of heart, but I think that it’s going to be talked about by those who do read it. It has a way of settling into your consciousness and twisting it about. I was left thinking about it for a few days after finishing, and oof. Recommended, but for a very specific reader.
Rating 8: Suspenseful and unsettling, “Bath Haus” is a twisted thriller that will get under your skin.
“Bath Haus” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 Releases Featuring Queer Men”.