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The Need



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About The Book

Named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Best Mystery and Thriller Books of All Time

“An extraordinary and dazzlingly original work from one of our most gifted and interesting writers” (Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Glass Hotel). The Need, which finds a mother of two young children grappling with the dualities of motherhood after confronting a masked intruder in her home, is “like nothing you’ve ever read before…in a good way” (People).

When Molly, home alone with her two young children, hears footsteps in the living room, she tries to convince herself it’s the sleep deprivation. She’s been hearing things these days. Startling at loud noises. Imagining the worst-case scenario. It’s what mothers do, she knows.

But then the footsteps come again, and she catches a glimpse of movement.

Suddenly Molly finds herself face-to-face with an intruder who knows far too much about her and her family. As she attempts to protect those she loves most, Molly must also acknowledge her own frailty. Molly slips down an existential rabbit hole where she must confront the dualities of motherhood: the ecstasy and the dread; the languor and the ferocity; the banality and the transcendence as the book hurtles toward a mind-bending conclusion.

In The Need, Helen Phillips has created a subversive, speculative thriller that comes to life through blazing, arresting prose and gorgeous, haunting imagery. “Brilliant” (Entertainment Weekly), “grotesque and lovely” (The New York Times Book Review, Editor’s Choice), and “wildly captivating” (O, The Oprah Magazine), The Need is a glorious celebration of the bizarre and beautiful nature of our everyday lives and “showcases an extraordinary writer at her electrifying best” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).


The Need 1
She crouched in front of the mirror in the dark, clinging to them. The baby in her right arm, the child in her left.

There were footsteps in the other room.

She had heard them an instant ago. She had switched off the light, scooped up her son, pulled her daughter across the bedroom to hide in the far corner.

She had heard footsteps.

But she was sometimes hearing things. A passing ambulance mistaken for Ben’s nighttime wail. The moaning hinges of the bathroom cabinet mistaken for Viv’s impatient pre-tantrum sigh.

Her heart and blood were loud. She needed them to not be so loud.

Another step.

Or was it a soft hiccup from Ben? Or was it her own knee joint cracking beneath thirty-six pounds of Viv?

She guessed the intruder was in the middle of the living room now, halfway to the bedroom.

She knew there was no intruder.

Viv smiled at her in the feeble light of the faraway streetlamp. Viv always craved games that were slightly frightening. Any second now, she would demand the next move in this wondrous new one.

Her desperation for her children’s silence manifested as a suffocating force, the desire for a pillow, a pair of thick socks, anything she could shove into them to perfect their muteness and save their lives.

Another step. Hesitant, but undeniable.

Or maybe not.

Ben was drowsy, tranquil, his thumb in his mouth.

Viv was looking at her with curious, cunning eyes.

David was on a plane somewhere over another continent.

The babysitter had marched off to get a Friday-night beer with her girls.

Could she squeeze the children under the bed and go out to confront the intruder on her own? Could she press them into the closet, keep them safe among her shoes?

Her phone was in the other room, in her bag, dropped and forgotten by the front door when she arrived home from work twenty-five minutes ago to a blueberry-stained Ben, to Viv parading through the living room chanting “Birth-Day! Birth-Day!” with an uncapped purple marker held aloft in her right hand like the Statue of Liberty’s torch.

“Viv!” she had roared when the marker grazed the white wall of the hallway as her daughter ran toward her. But to no avail: a purple scar to join the others, the green crayon, the red pencil.

A Friday-night beer with my girls.

How exotic, she had thought distantly, handing over the wad of cash. Erika was twenty-three, and buoyant, and brave. She had wanted, above all else, someone brave to look after the children.

“Now what?” Viv said, starting to strain against her arm. Thankfully, a stage whisper rather than a shriek.

But even so the footsteps shifted direction, toward the bedroom.

If David were home, in the basement, practicing, she would be stomping their code on the floor, five times for Come up right this second, usually because both kids needed everything from her at once.

A step, a step?

This problem of hers had begun about four years ago, soon after Viv’s birth. She confessed it only to David, wanting to know if he ever experienced the same sensation, trying and failing to capture it in words: the minor disorientations that sometimes plagued her, the small errors of eyes and ears. The conviction that the rumble underfoot was due to an earthquake rather than a garbage truck. The conviction that there was something somehow off about a piece of litter found amid the fossils in the Pit at work. A brief flash or dizziness that, for a millisecond, caused reality to shimmer or waver or disintegrate slightly. In those instants, her best recourse was to steady her body against something solid—David, if he happened to be nearby, or a table, a tree, or the dirt wall of the Pit—until the world resettled into known patterns and she could once more move invincible, unshakable, through her day.

Yes, David said whenever she brought it up; he knew what she meant, kind of. His diagnosis: sleep deprivation and/or dehydration.

Viv squirmed out of her grasp. She was a slippery kid, and, with only one arm free, there was no way Molly could prevent her daughter’s escape.

“Stay. Right. Here,” she mouthed with all the intensity she could infuse into a voiceless command.

But Viv tiptoed theatrically toward the bedroom door, which was open just a crack, and grinned back at her mother, the grin turned grimace by the eerie light of the streetlamp.

Molly didn’t know whether to move or stay put. Any quick action—a hurl across the room, a seizure of the T-shirt—was sure to unleash a scream or a laugh from Viv, was sure to disrupt Ben, lulled nearly to sleep by the panicked bouncing of Molly’s arm.

Viv pulled the door open.

Molly had never before noticed that the bedroom door squeaked, a sound that now seemed intolerably loud.

It would be so funny to tell David about this when he landed.

I turned off the light and made the kids hide in the corner of the bedroom. I was totally petrified. And it was nothing!

Beneath the hilarity would lie her secret concern about this little problem of hers. But their laughter would neutralize it, almost.

She listened hard for the footsteps. There were none.

She stood up. She raised Ben’s limp, snoozing body to her chest. She flicked the light back on. The room looked warm. Orderly. The gray quilt tucked tight at the corners. She would make mac and cheese. She would thaw some peas. She stepped toward the doorway, where Viv stood still, peering out.

“Who’s that guy?” Viv said.

About The Author

Photograph by Andy Vernon-Jones

Helen Phillips is the author of five books, including the novel The Need, a National Book Award nominee and a New York Times Notable Book of 2019. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, and the Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction. Her collection Some Possible Solutions received the John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Her novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat, a New York Times Notable Book, was a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her debut collection, And Yet They Were Happy, was named a notable collection by The Story Prize. An associate professor at Brooklyn College, she lives in Brooklyn with artist/cartoonist Adam Douglas Thompson and their children. Visit

Product Details

  • Publisher: S&S/Marysue Rucci Books (July 7, 2020)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982113179

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Raves and Reviews


“Like parenthood itself, The Need is frightening and maddening and full of dark comedy…Phillips, as careful with language as she is bold with structure, captures many small sharp truths. She is very good on drudgery and tiredness and marital resentment... With forensic precision Phillips identifies the price a parent will pay for tuning out just for a second, because that will certainly be the second when someone rolls off the bed or gets a finger trapped in the door…Everyday life, here, is both tedious and fascinating, grotesque and lovely, familiar and tremendously strange.” NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW (EDITORS’ CHOICE)

“Brilliant...It’s not hard to see why high-wattage contemporaries like Lauren Groff and Emily St. John Mandel have lavished praise…a sort of narrative nesting doll, a story infused with both essential home truths and a wild, almost unhinged sense of unreality....What Helen Phillips (The Beautiful Bureaucrat) builds from the first paragraphs is too clever, and moves too quickly, to be easily ground down in a review. Even the vaguely unfinished ending, less a full stop than a sort of pregnant pause, feels somehow right; a fitting coda to her spare, eerie marvel of novel, both beautifully familiar and profoundly strange. (A–)”ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

“If the challenges of parenting young children have ever driven you to the brink, you’ll recognize what’s happening to Molly Nye—for about 10 pages. This fever dream of a novel starts like a thriller (someone’s in the living room), morphs into speculative sci-fi (the intruder is from a separate universe) and ends up like nothing you’ve ever read before. In a good way.”PEOPLE

“Molly’s struggle to remain her full self while giving so much of herself away is electrifying...Mothers will recognize so much in this fresh novel — but they aren’t the only ones who should read it. Phillips has found a way to make these experiences universal, acknowledging the importance of the other — the creature without whom none of us would exist.”WASHINGTON POST

"A taut thriller…Between chills, readers will notice the pleasures of Phillips’s prose. Her style combines the sensibility of a poet with the forward drive of a thriller…Phillips’s crystalline style vividly evokes her characters. She draws them so precisely that before we know it, we’re deep inside their lives...[A] bewitching, fiercely original novel.”BOSTON GLOBE

“Hyponotically eerie…An ode to motherhood and a nightmarish rendering of its ‘pleasures’ and pains…Phillips structures her astonishing fifth book in edge-of-your-seat mini-chapters that infuse domesticity with a horror-movie level of foreboding, reminding us that the maternal instinct is indeed a primal one.” —LEIGH HABER, O MAGAZINE

“[A] wildly captivating speculative thriller…harrowing and surreal…you'll crave the next page. Phillips structures her astonishing fifth book in edge-of-your-seat mini-chapters that infuse domesticity with a horror-movie level of foreboding, reminding us that the maternal instinct is indeed a primal one.”O MAGAZINE

"An unforgettable tour de force that melds nonstop suspense, intriguing speculation, and perfectly crafted prose...Structured in brief, sharply focused segments that shift back and forth in time, the novel interrogates the nature of the self, the powers and terrors of parenting, and the illusions of chronology. Yet it’s also chock-full of small moments—some scary, some tender, some darkly witty—that ground its cerebral themes in a sharply observed evocation of motherhood. With its crossover appeal to lovers of thriller, science fiction, and literary fiction, this story showcases an extraordinary writer at her electrifying best."PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY (STARRED REVIEW)

"Suspenseful and mysterious, insightful and tender, Phillips' new thriller cements her standing as a deservedly celebrated author with a singular sense of story and style… [A] superbly engaging read—quirky, perceptive, and gently provocative. An intruder upends the life of a young mother and paleobotanist, prompting her to recalibrate her relationships with her family, her work, and, most importantly, herself. Phillips' fuguelike novel, in which the protagonist's tormentor may be either other or self, is a parable of parenting and the anxieties that prey on mothers and fathers, amplified by exhaustion, sleeplessness, the weight of responsibility, and shifting identities and roles. Molly may be losing her marbles, but we can't help rooting for her to find herself. While Phillips' exquisitely existential The Beautiful Bureaucrat (2015) found humanity, love, and hope in a dark, dystopian world, this novel locates them in the routine aspects of child-rearing, capturing not only the sense of loss and fear that often attends parenting, but also the moments of triumph and bliss."KIRKUS REVIEWS (STARRED REVIEW)

“Motherhood is a monstrosity in this engrossing novel, which opens with a mother clutching her children, fearful she hears an intruder. She doubts herself — not only about whether she’s imagined the break-in, but about how to exist as a mother. The story is maddening, panicky and full of black humor, much like parenthood itself."NEW YORK TIMES

“[A] poison dart of a sophomore novel...The Need is a thriller, and it isn’t. It’s a novel Shirley Jackson might write if she’d dropped acid with Rivka Galchen…The novel is a fantasy and a nightmare of what might happen when we see our (parenting) selves objectively.” NEW YORK MAGAZINE

"Just as we saw with Jordan Peele's latest horror movie, Us, the scariest thing is an intruder who reflects yourself. Helen Phillips' literary thriller imagines a terrifying masked figure who knows everything about paleobotanist Molly—and their identity is both stranger and simpler than anyone could imagine."ELLE (SUMMER 2019 MOST ANTICIPATED)

“Helen Phillips is best known for her delirious and philosophical short stories, and in her second novel, she combines her impeccable brevity with plot that unfolds like a paper snowflake.”VANITY FAIR

“Plotted like a thriller but seemingly born of a ménage à trois between an Italo Calvino novel, a mommy blog, and Shirley Jackson’s “domestic memoirs,” here is the next novel mothers will be passing around like illicit candy.”VULTURE

"The Need is a chilling novel from a blazing talent. It’s also very hard to write about without spoilers, because in addition to being a cerebral meditation on motherhood at its most elemental – fierce, beatific, sanity-thieving – it’s an adroitly executed thriller with a quasi-sci-fi twist. Mercilessly tense throughout, its opening chapter is a belter, beginning as Molly, home alone with her young kids, hears footsteps in the other room. The twist comes early on, with the removal of the intruder’s mask, and draws intriguingly on Molly’s work as a palaeobotanist. A bracingly singular achievement, it’s surreal, blackly comic and ultimately generous."THE OBSERVER

"Told through the mind of paleobotanist Molly, perpetually exhausted by her two small children and her job excavating (increasingly mysterious) fossil fauna, The Need is a taut, thrilling rendering of motherhood at its most psychologically terrifying."VANITY FAIR

"I'll also be calling in sick for THE NEED, by Helen Phillips, whose unexpected fiction reminds us that the membrane between reality and madness is porous indeed."—SARAH LYALL, THE NEW YORK TIMES

"Essentially a home invasion thriller, The Need swirls around a young mother faced with an intruder she doesn't know, but seems to know her family all too well. You'll breeze through this existential treatise on motherhood, the nature of reality, and what happens when you're totally, utterly sleep deprived."THRILLIST (SUMMER 2019 MOST ANTICIPATED)

“The Need, the eerily gorgeous new novel by Helen Phillips, fills the void, offering up the perfect, insightful look into the way motherhood warps the world around you. …Phillips brilliantly captures the dissonant dualities of being a mother: the ways strength is matched with fragility, tenderness with ferocity, nurturing with palpable, almost riotous need. Phillips' language is beautiful and blistering, it feels raw and mundane in the way of an open wound, or a nipple, chafed from constantly breastfeeding.”NYLON

"A skillfully crafted, thought provoking domestic thriller."BOOKLIST

“A literary fever dream. ..The often distorted perspectives that come with modern motherhood are on full display in Phillips’ fictional reality as she poetically questions the psychological self. (5/5)” BUST

“Tired of reading variations on the same old domestic thriller? [The Need is a] decidedly literary novel that plumbs the psychology of motherhood. It starts when Molly hears a noise in the house. It goes places you can’t imagine. The Need is a book people will be talking – and theorizing — about.REFINERY29

“An elegant dread slips through this elusive novel like wisteria on a crumbling wall...Many books claim to be domestic thrillers. The Need is the mother of them all.”MINNEAPOLIS STAR-TRIBUNE

“Phillips combines the terrifying idea of a home invasion with the delicacy and urgency of motherhood in this fiction of the summer's most anticipated reads.”—NEWSDAY

“I’m a big fan of Helen Phillips, and she has a dark, maternal horror story called The Need that I know is going to be brilliant.”KAREN RUSSELL, ESQUIRE.COM

"The Need is a profound meditation on the nature of reality, a fearless examination of parenthood, and also somehow a thriller. This is an extraordinary and dazzlingly original work from one of our most gifted and interesting writers."—EMILY ST. JOHN MANDEL, AUTHOR OF STATION ELEVEN

"This book held me hostage, invaded my dreams and my waking thoughts, and readjusted my brain; Phillips is, as always, doing something at once wildly her own and utterly primal. Maybe it doesn't surprise me that the strangest book I've read about motherhood is also the best, but it does thrill me."—REBECCA MAKKAI, AUTHOR OF THE GREAT BELIEVERS

The Need is a spellbinding novel, both unsettling and irresistible. The best fiction finds the uncanny within the familiar; it makes us feel the fantastical undercurrent of our embodied lives. With exquisite economy and evocative prose, Phillips manifests the surreal, terrifying, and visceral experience of motherhood.”—DANA SPIOTTA, AUTHOR OF INNOCENTS AND OTHERS

“Helen Phillips has created an existential page-turner that captures, with perfect sharpness, the fierce delirium of motherhood, the longing to understand the workings of our universe, and the wondrous and terrifying mystery that is time. The Need is a brain-bending heartbreaker of a novel, and definitive proof that Helen Phillips is one of the most spellbindingly original writers working today.”—LAURA VAN DEN BERG, AUTHOR OF THE THIRD HOTEL

“This is a book about the biggest things you can imagine--the dreadful potentiality of life, the fierceness of love, and the terrifying and exhilarating mystery of motherhood. Helen Phillips writes at the nexus of science fiction and psychological realism, conjuring a narrative so mind-bending and immersive that it'll change what you see as real. She is an author at the height of her power, and we are so lucky to be living in her moment.”—ALEXANDRA KLEEMAN, AUTHOR OF YOU TOO CAN HAVE A BODY LIKE MINE

“From the opening sentence, The Need sucked me in (I read it in one sitting) and then spat me out at the end, feeling dazed and slightly off-kilter in the best and most pleasurable way. Phillips evokes with astoundingly masterful prose the lengths to which a mother will go for her children. At once a fast-paced thriller and psychologically astute literary novel, the intensity of the plot is leavened with moments of startling tenderness. Bravo."—KATE CHRISTENSEN, AUTHOR OF THE LAST CRUISE

"Helen Phillips writes with energy and experimentalism, including aspects of child rearing that are slapstick and joyous as well as life-altering and draining. It’s a book that starts out as a mystery, morphs into comedy and ends … well, you’ll have to read it to understand how perfect the ending is." NPR'S FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2019


"A tightrope walk over the abyss, where the stakes are total, and the prose is exuberant and taut, dire and playful."KAREN RUSSELL

“Are we pawns in the thrall of bureaucratic (Kafka) or totalitarian (Orwell) systems? Or are we, in fact, the ones with ultimate power; the arbiters — even unknowingly — of life and death? Helen Phillips deftly interrogates this existential divide in her riveting, drolly surreal debut novel, The Beautiful Bureaucrat." —THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

"Told with the light touch of a Calvino and the warm heart of a Saramago, this brief fable-novel is funny, sad, scary, and beautiful. I love it."—URSULA K. LE GUIN

"Helen Phillips’ The Beautiful Bureaucrat has the compulsive quality of a mystery and the furious urgency of a fever dream. I picked it up and read it everywhere: on the subway, over breakfast, in bed when I should have been sleeping, at work when I should have been working. It will coax you into its world with the crystalline precision of its prose, so full of heart and strangeness it might even crawl into your own dreams and find you there."—LESLIE JAMISON

"The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a thrillingly original debut, formally inventive and emotionally complex. Helen Phillips is one of the most exciting young writers working today, and I envy those who get to discover her work here for the first time."—JENNY OFFILL

"Equal parts mystery, thriller, and existential inquiry, Phillips’s book evokes the menace of the mundane."—THE NEW REPUBLIC

"The Beautiful Bureaucrat reads like Borges in Brooklyn, with its cerebral pleasures buttressed by Helen Phillips’ precise, resonant depictions of love, marriage, sex, and terrible apartments. It bends from uncanny to unsettling and ends at very deeply satisfying."—ROBIN SLOAN

"A satisfying parable of love and life, death and birth, and the travails of transposed numbers. The Beautiful Bureaucrat reads like a thriller."—JOSHUA FERRIS

"Helen Phillips is a funny, subversive, enigmatic, melancholy wonder. With And Yet They Were Happy she produced one of my favorite recent story collections and now, with The Beautiful Bureaucrat, she has written one of my favorite recent novels, equal parts Franz Kafka and Lydia Davis, a narrative in which the perplexities of work and marriage gradually change their colors to display the perplexities of birth and death. When these pages reached my hands, my first thought was this: Helen Phillips is publishing another book, which means that I can, briefly, revel in it until I start looking for her next."—KEVIN BROCKMEIER

"In the bleak hallways of bureaucracy, Helen Phillips explores what it means to make a life one’s own. The Beautiful Bureaucrat is a page-turning mystery, a love story and a revelation."—RAMONA AUSUBEL

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