THE SPARE ROOM: A Deadly Journey of Self-Discovery
By Lisa Malice
Every author has heard the old adage write what you know. In the Spring of 2020, Andrea Bartz knew one thing—she was going bananas living in her 380-square-foot NYC apartment with only a cat to keep her company. Like so many single people struggling with COVID lockdowns, Bartz drew comfort from talking with friends via video calls. With time on her hands, she reached out and rekindled relationships with long-lost pals, too. But calls were not enough to assuage her loneliness.
So, when one of those long-distance friends offered Bartz a lifeline—the spare bedroom in her family’s large Maryland home and people to hang out with in-person—she packed her bags, bundled up her cat, and hopped on the first train out of town. What was supposed to be a three-week trip turned into a five-month stay that sparked a life-changing journey, as well as the idea for her latest psychological thriller, THE SPARE ROOM.
The story opens with Kelly, the main character, whose thirty-four-year-old life has become a nightmare. The lockdown has trapped her, friendless and jobless, in a tiny apartment in a new city in a new state with the man she gave up everything for—except he has just called off their wedding. The only bright spot in her miserable life is her newly rekindled friendship with her childhood friend, Sabrina—now a glamorous bestselling author with a handsome, high-powered husband, Nathan.
When the couple offers Kelly an escape hatch, volunteering the spare room of their remote Virginia mansion, she jumps at the chance to run away from her old life. There, Kelly secretly finds herself falling for both of her enchanting hosts—until one night, a wild and unexpected threesome leads the couple to open their marriage for her. At first, Kelly loves being part of this risqué new world. But when she discovers that the last woman invited into the couple’s marriage is missing, Kelly starts to wonder if Sabrina and Nathan have led her into a dangerous trap, one from which she might never escape alive.
Writing THE SPARE ROOM, a book that captures one woman’s exploration into queer love, was a risk for Bartz. Her previous works were more mainstream with predominately straight women as main characters. But Kelly’s story is one she felt compelled to tell, the most personal book Bartz has written to date, as it reflects in many ways the identity-shifting journey she herself experienced during the early months of COVID.
“Like Kelly,” Bartz notes, “I found myself away from home, far from family and friends, feeling uprooted and vulnerable.” Since she was living so close to the metro DC area, her therapist encouraged her to go on some outdoor, socially distanced dates—no commitments. “As I was filling out my online dating profile, I had to select whom I was interested in—‘men,’ ‘women,’ or ‘both.’ I’d always thought about dating women, but I hadn’t had the courage to follow through,” she says, citing internalized homophobia and heteronormativity (the assumption that heterosexuality is the natural ideal for romantic human relationships).
But find her courage she did, checking ‘both’ to explore a side of her sexuality unhampered by the constraints of time and space, or the judging eyes of family and friends living close by. Three years later, she loves and lives with the first woman she dated after checking that “both” box.
Like Bartz, Kelly’s character in THE SPARE ROOM comes to question who she is, what she wants, who she wants to love. Does she want what society has always told her is the American dream for a woman—a husband, 2.5 kids, a minivan, and a house in the suburbs? “I wanted to create a character who, like me, discovers her bisexuality later in life and is brave enough to talk about it. I wanted to show this woman facing her own vulnerability, her own fears about living authentically and coming out of it on the other side. My hope is that as others read Kelly’s story, they might recognize that their own journeys, whether coming out or making some other identity shift, are scary but very much worthwhile.”
What impact does Bartz hope THE SPARE ROOM and other boundary-pushing books will have in her genre and literature in general? “I’d like to see more mainstream characters representing the full spectrum of diversity with regard to gender identity, sexual orientation, race, neurodiversity, and so on. I’m hoping for inclusivity—one genre of domestic suspense, rather ‘queer domestic suspense’ parsed out from more mainstream reads.”
THE SPARE ROOM diverged from Bartz’s previous thriller novels in yet another way—it was her first foray into writing romantic suspense. “I always enjoyed reading rom-coms, but I had no idea how hard it would be to convincingly write people falling for each other. It requires a tricky balance of dialogue, flirtation, gestures, internal sensations, and sexual tension.” It was difficult to manage, but fun, she says, not only because the story involved three lovers in a shared relationship, but also because—unlike her earlier novels—the story took place in one setting. “The four walls of the couple’s gated-community mansion acted like a crucible, heightening and intensifying every perception and emotion the three characters experienced,” she says.
Despite a main story thread that follows one woman’s exploration into polyamory and bisexual love, THE SPARE ROOM is far from an erotic thriller. “I made a conscious decision to not write graphic sex scenes and to employ a more fade-to-black approach for one reason—I didn’t want readers distracted from the psychological suspense elements of the story.”
From that standpoint, THE SPARE ROOM really is a domestic thriller in the traditional sense of the genre. Notes Bartz, “Domestic suspense novels often follow main characters as they discover their agency, as they come to understand that their life is their own and they don’t need to live for anyone else or base their decisions on what others want. That is the journey we see in domestic suspense, in particular, that is really empowering.”
That analysis fits perfectly with THE SPARE ROOM. From the moment her fiancé calls off the wedding, Kelly’s journey portrays a character in crisis, a state of flux in her life, with moments of confidence and clarity swept away into the abyss by tidal waves of doubt and insecurity. Throw in a missing woman and suspicions of murder surrounding the two people Kelly has come to love, and you have all the makings of a page-turning thriller.