The Need

The Need

by Helen Phillips

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“A profound meditation on the nature of reality…An extraordinary and dazzlingly original work from one of our most gifted and interesting writers.” —Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven

“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

“Spellbinding...both unsettling and irresistible. Phillips manifests the surreal, terrifying, and visceral experience of motherhood.” —Dana Spiotta, author of Innocents and Others

“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.” —Laura Van Den Berg, author of The Third Hotel

“An unforgettable tour de force that melds nonstop suspense, intriguing speculation, and perfectly crafted prose…this story showcases an extraordinary writer at her electrifying best.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Suspenseful and mysterious, insightful and tender, Phillips's 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.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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. Helen Phillips has been anointed as one of the most exciting fiction writers working today, and The Need is a glorious celebration of the bizarre and beautiful nature of our everyday lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982113186
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 07/09/2019
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 11,108
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Helen Phillips is the author of, most recently, the novel The Need. Her collection Some Possible Solutions received the 2017 John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Her novel The Beautiful Bureaucrat, a New York Times Notable Book of 2015, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the NYPL Young Lions Award. Her collection And Yet They Were Happy was named a notable collection by The Story Prize. She is also the author of the middle-grade novel Here Where the Sunbeams Are Green. Helen has received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and the Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction, and her work has appeared in The AtlanticThe New York Times, and Tin House, and on Selected Shorts. She is an associate professor at Brooklyn College and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, artist Adam Douglas Thompson, and their children. Visit

Read an Excerpt

The Need

  • 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.

  • Customer Reviews

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    Need 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
    Anonymous 10 months ago
    While the story initially sucked me in, I found no satisfaction at all. The ending was extremely disappointing and abrupt, as if the author couldn't think of an ending so she just ended it.
    LeslieLindsay 5 months ago
    Eerie, speculative fiction with a slight thriller aspect, THE NEED is existential, mind-bending, and gloriously rendered I have a very teetering TBR bookshelf at home and on it are several Helen Phillips novels. Her stories are wild and brilliant and and a bit eccentric. That's what I like about her work. It's not the mundane. It's like a fever dream, those little bits of oddities that keep us awake at night, but we don't do anything more with because, well...we don't know how. Or we think they're 'too minute' to flesh out into a whole story. THE NEED (Simon & Schuster, July 2019) is clever and strange and distorted, but I loved it. You may read the first lines of the synopsis and see that Molly is a mother of young children and there's an intruder in the house and automatically think this is domestic thriller. But it's not. THE NEED is a literary exploration of what it means to be a mother, but also a study in identity, empathy, fear, the joys and insecurities and also the miseries of motherhood. It's gorgeously, lushly told with so much authenticity you will sometimes wonder, 'is this a memoir?' THE NEED is a very character-driven story and focuses mostly on the isolation of motherhood (Molly is home alone for a few days while her musician husband is on tour), and we get a claustrophobic sense of this woman's interior life. She's hearing things and startling at loud noises, imagining the worst-case scenario. There's a lot going on here--and astute readers will find the symbolism hauntingly eerie --from The Pit where Molly works as a paleobotanist, to the ocean/fish-themed birthday party she throws for her daughter, the subtle religious imagery (mother and child; breastfeeding), the deer mask, and so much more. I am afraid to say more because I don't want to spoil the bigger picture, which I think is we are often our own worst enemy. THE NEED made me want to write. It made me think about and examine small intricacies in new and surprising ways. I looked at the clouds differently, the blades of grass somehow seemed ominous. This story is a bit myth or folklore and readers should be aware that they may have to be more open-minded when they read; to suspend belief. I found some similarities between THE NEED and and Sarah Blake's NAMMAH meets IN THE DARK, DARK WOOD (Laird Hunt). This is a gorgeous, fearless, spellbinding book and not to be missed. L.Lindsay|Always with a Book
    jjthor 9 months ago
    This was a different book thats for sure! A bit of mystery,thriller and sci fi with a twist. It is manilly about Molly a mother of two that is home alone with her two kids when weird things start to happen. Can't really say too much about the plot or will ruin book. It was a fast moving story and well written I would say that you would really need to read it when you can give it your all attention so you can keep up with what is happening. I enjoyed it, deffinatley different than what I nomally read but very good.
    Anonymous 9 months ago
    If you saw Us earlier this year and wanted more of that kind of narrative, this book more than fills that void. Molly, a mother of a five-year-old and a toddler, spends much of her time at home while her husband is on the road as a musician. Things go bump one night, and she's confronted with a duplicate of herself named Moll. The beginning opens up in curious terror. The kind of terror where things aren't quite right, but you also know that this character is a bit hyper-attentive because she has two young children to take care of and manage a career. The story then goes further, allowing the reader space to meet Molly's coworkers, see what her relationship with her husband is like, how the babysitter fits in, and what her children are like. This book is short but covers so much ground and remains focused on Molly and her difficulties with day-to-day. I would not describe this book as a thriller, but it's an interesting speculative exploration of motherhood and all the trappings of its duality.
    HollyLovesBooks4 10 months ago
    I enjoyed this book but not as much as I thought I would based on the introduction. It had some sections where it didn't quite seem to make complete sense for me or maybe didn't live up to the plot line that I expected. I still thought it was easily readable with good writing and would recommend anything by this author. Still worth a read. #TheNeed #NetGalley
    MaryND 10 months ago
    There was a lot I liked about this book—I sped through the first third of it quickly, propelled along by the opening scenes of a terrified mother hiding in her room with a child in each arm as she hears an intruder moving through her house. These scenes were intercut with scenes from earlier that day, as the mother, Molly, works as a paleobotanist on a site where some strange artifacts have recently been unearthed, and the choppy and sudden cuts between the two settings as their timelines get closer and closer to converging, mirrored and emphasized Molly’s panic and uncertainty. And then things take a turn that I didn’t see coming and, I must say, didn’t really like, as The Need veers into the realms of speculative fiction and horror. I don’t want to spoil anything for future readers, so I will just note that I once heard an author (can’t remember who) say that readers should only suspend disbelief for an author ONE time in a book; everything that happens after that point, even if it seems crazy or impossible, will be accepted so long as it is consistent with that one initial unbelievable premise—but you only get one. My problem ultimately with The Need was that I had to keep making those leaps of faith and accepting plot developments that didn’t follow any sort of logic. Maybe this wouldn’t be a problem for a reader who is more comfortable with the science fiction and horror genres than I am and more willing to suspend disbelief for the author however many times they are required to do so, but it really bothered me and brought my momentum with the book to a standstill. I still finished, but thought the ending was at once too pat and on the other hand left too many plot threads hanging. I know that this book will have many ardent fans, however, probably among those readers who go into it knowing what to expect. Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing me with an ARC of this title in exchange for my honest review.
    DeediReads 11 months ago
    OK y’all. I’m going to need you to get a copy of this book, buckle your seatbelt, read it as fast as you can, and then immediately message me so that we can talk about it. Because holy moly, this was WILD. Molly is, in a word, a working mom: She loves her two kids fiercely and to the depth of her soul, but she’s also exhausted by the day-to-day slog of raising young kids. She genuinely loves her husband, loves her job, loves her life. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t tired. Then one night she’s home alone with her kids and hears an intruder in the other room. After a highly relatable I-don’t-like-what-my-gut-is-telling-me-so-I’m-going-to-convince-myself-that-I’m-overthinking-this internal monologue, it turns out that there is an intruder. Throughout this tense, terrifying scene, we get chapter flashbacks to the earlier part of her workday. She’s an archaeologist (of the plant fossil variety), but she recently found some really Twilight-Zone-esque artifacts that have caused their little dig site to turn into a sensation. They get admirers and death threats alike. That’s really only the first few chapters of the book, but I can’t really tell you more than that without spoilers. All I can say is that when you find out who the intruder is, you are going to be like whaaaaaaaaat. And then the rest of the book will blow your mind. I’m still reeling. And how about that ending?!?!? Molly’s character (in all its facets) is so excellently done. And her thoughts, struggles, and fierce love are the stuff that the human experience is made of. To bring that to light so effectively while also blowing the reader’s mind and keeping us on the edge of our seats is the stuff of masterful writing. I’m not usually big on thrillers. But this book was so much more than a thriller. It was a puzzle, a statement, a question, and a WILD trip.
    clarkphd 11 months ago
    When I give a book 5 stars, it's not always because I enjoyed it (although I did enjoy this one), often it's because a book hit me in a different way - one that will likely stay with me long after I remove it from my Kindle. The Need is beautifully weird, speculative fiction, but it's also one of the most realistic portrayals of motherwhood I've read in fiction. Phillips nailed the paradox of motherhood - the exhaustion, the overwhelming love, the constant battle between the "need" to be both with your children and away from them at the same time. Then she turns it on its head and asks, "what if you got that much needed break?" As I write this review, I'm being constantly bombarded with my children's needs (my 4-year-old is currently beginning for me to get his hero toys down out of the closet, and in less than 5 minutes he'll be crying because the puppy is chewing Iron Man's leg off). Would I trade it? Not for the world. Every mother should read this book! It's strange, and not for everyone's taste, but it's worth it. Trust me.
    CLynnT 11 months ago
    Let’s say you have 2 minutes to concisely explain the plot of this book where your audience will have no further questions. You’re making a good effort but see yourself sitting in the audience, cringing because you’re doing a horribly inadequate job and wanting to scream because your other self knows in a short while you and all you love will be dead. Are you losing it due to lack of sleep, too many demands between family and job or have you inadvertently opened a portal to a parallel time thru your career as a paleobotanist? To complicate matters, you’re an extremely likable person, very strong-willed and independent, and you have 2 beautiful and bubbly kids that your audience just falls in love with. They can’t look away, but you can’t bear to see the pity and concern in their eyes. Helen Phillips’ eloquent, emotional and disturbing writing style makes me feel like this is my stage. And I, like the audience, can’t look away from her book. I eagerly devoured this; yes, I still had questions after the last page. But I loved every page of the journey. What an evocative, unusual, fresh and enveloping read. (I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks so much to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for making it available.)
    lee2staes 11 months ago
    The Need switches between Molly’s unusual work life and her distressing home life. This combined with the science fiction aspect, makes it an unforgettable read. This book was intriguing and It pulled at my mind, compelling me to keep reading to find out what was going to happen next. But it was a bit confusing and creepy for me at times. All in all it was a good read. It held my interest and kept pulling me back into the story. Thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for this book in exchange for an honest review.
    Janice Lombardo 11 months ago
    What a mix of genres! Molly was exhausted from taking care of a toddler and a baby, with only the help of her babysitter. Her husband, David, a musician, was on a gig in Buenos Aires. Add to that working full-time at a Phillips 66 quarry as a paleobotanist, Molly was definitely a candidate for bizarre behavior. However, for the past 4 years, Molly has had strange feelings and incorrect "hearings". She shared her fears with David who was comforting yet had no solution for her. At the dig, Molly found a number of artifacts. Strangest, perhaps - a Bible from the early 1900's that used the pronoun "she" when referring to God in the Book of Genesis. After that, a man in her tour group tells her he would pray for her soul. It is then that things only take a turn for unaccountable strangeness..... Was Molly unravelling? Or was it something else..... Great Read! Many Thanks to Simon & Schuster & NetGalley for an interesting cover to cover read!