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Excerpt and Book Review: Everyone is Watching by Heather Gudenkauf

About the Book

The Best Friend. The Confidant. The Senator. The Boyfriend. The Executive.

Five contestants have been chosen to compete for ten million dollars on the game show One Lucky Winner. The catch? None of them knows what (or who) to expect, and it will be live streamed all over the world. Completely secluded in an estate in Northern California, with strict instructions not to leave the property and zero contact with the outside world, the competitors start to feel a little too isolated.

When long-kept secrets begin to rise to the surface, the contestants realize this is no longer just a reality show—someone is out for blood. And the game can’t end until the world knows who the contestants really are…

My Review

Oh my goodness but was this a trip! Let me start by saying right off the bat that I HATE reality TV, particularly the iterations that pit people against one another. I was invited to read this ARC and almost said no thank you purely because of that – but Gudenkauf’s books keep popping up and I hadn’t read her yet, so decided to give it a go anyway.

Let me start by saying that everything that irks me about reality television is present here: the exaggerated personalities, the melodrama, the aggression and lowest-common-denominator mentality of viewers gleefully watching people fall apart. And yet despite that, I found the story to draw me in right from the start, even knowing I would be cringing and rolling my eyes throughout (and rest assured, I did – this isn’t a Road to Damascus story, and I still really hate the concept of reality shows). Gudenkauf has a very engaging and easy-going writing style that draws you in even if you resist, and that combined with the fast pace and non-stop conflict really made the pages turn.

It’s a dark twisty read – nothing terribly surprising, but still it kept me flipping pages from start to finish, which is definitely down to her ability to spin a tale out of whole cloth!

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for my obligation-free review copy.

The Excerpt


The Best Friend

Maire Hennessy squinted against the bright October sun as she drove down the quiet Iowa county road. The fields were filled with the stubbled remains of the fall harvest and stripped bare by heavy-billed grackles and beady-eyed blackbirds eating their fill before the cold weather set in. It made her a little sad. Winter would be coming soon, unrelenting and unforgiving.

That morning, she had packed up her girls and Kryngle, their four-year-old Shetland sheepdog, to drop them off at her former mother-in-law’s home. Maire, who hadn’t traveled more than a hundred miles away from Calico since she abruptly dropped out of college over twenty years earlier, was embarking on an adventure that could change the course of their lives forever. Ten-year-old Dani kicked the back of Maire’s seat in time to the throbbing beat coming from her older sister Keely’s ear­buds. Keely, a twelve-year-old carbon copy of Maire, had the hood of her sweatshirt pulled up over her head, her red curls springing out around her sullen face, as she silently pretended to read her book.

Maire tapped her fingers nervously against the steering wheel. “You’re going to be just fine,” she said, turning onto the highway that would take her children to her ex-mother-in-law’s home. Shar was a decent enough person. Except for the fact that she smoked like a chimney and gave birth to a shit of a son, Maire knew she would take good care of the girls while she was away.

“I don’t want to go,” Dani murmured. “I like my own bed. Grandma’s house feels weird.”

Both Dani and Keely dreaded the two weeks that they were going to stay with their grandmother, a bland, unexcitable woman with steel gray hair and stooped shoulders. There would be no movie nights, no special outings, no grand adventures, but they would be well-cared for, safe. And that’s all that Maire wanted.

“I thought you liked Grandma Hennessy,” Maire said. “You’ll make cookies and she’s going to teach you both how to crochet. You’ll have a great time.”

“Why are you going to be gone for so long?” Dani asked, staring at Maire through the rearview mirror, her eyes filled with hurt. A wet cough rumbled through her chest and she buried her mouth in her elbow.

That familiar cloud of worry that materialized every time Dani had a coughing fit settled over Maire.

“It’s only for two weeks and it’s not that I don’t want to see you,” she said. “You know that. I would be with you every single day if I could. It’s kind of a work thing and I can’t pass up the opportunity.”

“You work from home,” Keely said, briefly pulling out an earbud.

Maire didn’t mind lying to Shar but lying to her children was different. She had the chance of a lifetime and in a way, it was work related. Money was involved. Lots of it.

“It’s like a contest,” Maire explained. “And if I win, well, that would be nice. And even if I don’t, a lot of people will learn about my Calico Rose jewelry and might want to sell it.”

“Like Claire’s in the mall?” Dani asked.

“Yes, Claire’s, Target, who knows?” The lies slid so easily off her tongue now. Dani’s kicks to the back of Maire’s seat slowed as she mulled this over.

“I’m sorry,” Maire said. “I know it’s hard.” Her voice broke on the last word. Hard wasn’t anywhere close to how things had been for the last year. Terrifying, humiliating, devastating, soul-crushing were more like it.

Bobby had never been much of a husband or father, but his health insurance had been a lifeline for Dani. When he lost his job at a local grain elevator and then took off with the nine­teen-year-old waitress from the Sunshine Café, gone was the health insurance and any hope of child support. When the first $3,000 notice for Dani’s nebulizer treatments came in, Maire ran to the bathroom and vomited. It was impossible. Too much.

Between the implosion of her marriage, the impact it had on the kids, her bank account that was dangerously low, the unpaid medical bills, the jewelry she made for her Etsy shop, and the search for a job that provided decent health insurance, Maire was exhausted.

Things couldn’t go on this way. “It will get better,” she promised.

Maire glanced over at Keely and caught her accusatory glare. Out of all of them, the divorce hit Keely the hardest. Despite his drawbacks, Keely was a daddy’s girl, and she was suffering in his absence.

The worry never ended. At the top of the list was Dani’s health. Her cystic fibrosis was stable for the moment, but she was fragile. Her last infection required a two-week hospital stay, a PICC line with multiple antibiotic infusions, therapies, and nebulizer treatments. It was so much that Maire had to put together a binder for Shar filled with in-depth directions for Dani’s care, and she hoped she wasn’t making a huge mistake by leaving. A lung infection that may be mild for most children could be deadly for Dani. And poor Keely. Quiet, shy Keely was getting lost in the shuffle, becoming more removed, iso­lated from them. Another thing to worry about.

A month ago, when she got the email about the show, she al­most deleted it. Maire had been online, scanning articles about the newest cystic fibrosis research, when she heard the ping. Grateful for an excuse to tear her eyes away from the words like Fibrinogen-like 2 proteins and cryogenic electron microscopy, she tapped the email icon on her phone.

CONGRATULATIONS—YOU’VE BEEN NOMINATED, the subject line called out to her. She scanned the rest of the email. Trip of a lifetime, groundbreaking new reality show, $10 million. Scam, Maire thought and went back to reading about clinical trials and RNA therapy. But an hour later, she was still thinking about the $10 million. She opened the email again to read it more closely.

Congratulations, you’ve been nominated to take part in the groundbreaking new reality competition show One Lucky Win­ner! Set in the heart of wine country, you, along with the other contestants, will battle for $10 million through a series of chal­lenges that will test you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Competitors will spend fourteen days at the exclusive Diletta Resort and Spa in beautiful Napa Valley. When not competing, spend your time in your lavishly appointed private cottage, swim­ming laps in the 130-foot pool, or head to the spa for our one-of-a-kind vinotherapy-based treatments—massages, wraps, and scrubs made from grapes grown in the La Bella Luce vineyard. As a special treat, each contestant will receive a case of Bella Luce’s world-famous cabernet sauvignon with an exclusively de­signed label just for you!

Maire snorted. It had to be a joke. A rip-off. She closed the email, even sent it to her trash folder, but an hour later, she pulled it up again. Ten million dollars. Maire was one month away from not being able to pay the mortgage on the house, from not being able to make the car payment, from not being able to put money in the kids’ school lunch accounts, from not being able to pay for one dose of Dani’s medication.

She should probably should just sell the house, take the loss, start over, but this was her home, the kids’ home. There was no way she was giving it up without a fight. She didn’t need anywhere near $10 million to save the house, but that is what it was worth to her, and that kind of money would change her life, all their lives.

Who would have nominated her? And how did that actu­ally work? Hey, I know of someone who could use $10 million. The entire thing had to be fake. The email was signed by someone named Fern Espa, whose title read Production Assistant, One Lucky Winner.

Anyone could send an email. Maire trashed the message again.

Then, over the next three days, the car started leaking oil, Kryngle ate a sock and had to have emergency surgery, and Da­ni’s hospital bill came in. Her credit cards were maxed out and she’d given up on any help from her ex. Maire needed money, fast. Burying her humiliation, she called her parents and asked for a loan. It wasn’t nearly enough.

Maire hung up and went to the garage, sitting in her leaky car so that the kids wouldn’t hear her crying.

Maybe this was the email she was waiting for. The sign she needed to finally take control of her life. Maire wasn’t a fool though. She did her due diligence. While sitting in the wait­ing room at the vet’s office, she looked up One Lucky Winner and found a website and an IMDB entry—both short on de­tails—but it clearly was a real show. She searched for the name Fern Espa and found a LinkedIn entry that looked legit. And the Diletta Resort looked amazing.

And now, under the guise of a work trip, here she was, drop­ping her kids off at her mother-in-law’s house for two weeks, hopping on a plane to Napa to take part in some Survivor-type reality show for the off chance she might win $10 million. It was ridiculous, over the top, maybe even irresponsible, but it ignited a spark of hope that she hadn’t felt in a long time.

“You’ll be okay,” Maire said to the kids as she turned onto the cracked concrete of Shar’s street. Shar was waiting for them, standing on her rickety front porch, a cigarette dangling from her knobby fingers. With hail-pocked, dirty white aluminum siding and a crabgrass-choked yard in need of mowing, the home her ex-husband grew up in was grim and depressing. But her mother-in-law was a sweet woman who loved her grand­children. Maire scanned the street. Every house was in the same state of disarray and neglect. A jolt of fear shot through her. If she didn’t turn things around, they would end up living in a place like this, or worse.

Jesus, Maire thought. I’m making a huge mistake. She fought the urge to drive right on by. Instead, she gave the girls her bravest smile. “It’s okay. We’re all going to be okay.”

Ten million dollars would make everything okay.

Excerpted from Everyone Is Watching by Heather Gudenkauf. Copyright © 2024 by Heather Gudenkauf. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.

About the Author

Heather Gudenkauf is the critically acclaimed author of several novels, including the New York Times bestsellers The Weight of Silence and The Overnight Guest. She lives in Iowa with her husband and children.

Author photo credit: Kate Cousins Photography

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