by Susan Meissner
When Marielle marries a widower with two young children, her new family comes with an odd living arrangement: they will live with the grandmother of her husband’s ex-wife in the ancestral plantation house, Holly Oak. Adelaide, the family matriarch, is kind but Marielle can never quite feel at home – a situation exacerbated by the ghost stories her neighbors tell about Holly Oak. According to one old gossip and her “psychic” friend, the ghost of Susannah Page haunts the mansion. Susannah is one of Adelaide’s ancestors, and is widely believed to have been a Northern spy during the Civil War. As Marielle explores the house, she uncovers a cache of journals that reveal that her husband’s former wife was not as happy as she appeared, but frequently suffered from depression and extreme sadness. Could she be the ghost that haunts Holly Oak? Or is Adelaide correct when she insists that it is the house itself that is stuck in time and unable to move forward? Perhaps a chest containing a series of unsent letters penned by Susannah Page will finally reveal the truth…
When I first picked this book up, I thought it was a historical novel that would alternate chapters with a contemporary setting. It’s a common enough device in historical fiction, after all. But over two hundred pages pass before we get to the epistolary historic narrative, which was well over half the book. I mean, the contemporary characters – Marielle, her husband Carson, and old Adelaide – talk about the historic events that took place in the house, but the setting is purely 21st century, even if it takes place in a historic mansion. Certainly, the modern family situation is unusual, and has the potential to be quite entertaining, but the characters are shallowly drawn and constantly focused on uncovering the history of the house. There’s a bit of denial in that; they don’t want to think about the oddity of living strangers living together, so they focus on this bit of history instead. But the delay of the historical narrative made it seem odd and almost intrusive when it finally showed up.
I’ve always had a personal dislike of epistolary novels, for a simple reason: I’ve never seen a real letter that replicated whole conversations and momentary emotions the way that letters in novels do, and when the letters become the novel it just feels a little too contrived for my tastes. Although Susanna’s life during the Civil War is entertaining enough, the letter format holds the reader at a distance from the action, and ultimately the story feels shallow, its narrator detached from the daily reality of her own life.
What makes this novel work, in spite of its flaws, is Meissner’s writing style. She has a very fluid pen that makes easy, believable conversations. Peppered throughout the book are single, sparkling moments – some sentences or careful phrasing of words that do a wonderful job of conjuring up a vision. There were similar such moments in The Girl in the Glass, another book of Meissner’s that I reviewed last year. So even though the characterization lacked depth and the second half of the book tends to drag, I enjoyed the story and would read it again.
3.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Uzumaki Vol. 3 by Junji Ito
2011: Closing down for end of the year Festivus…
2010: Remaining Unread: The Top Ten Reasons We Don’t Get to Certain Books
2009: Twi-Con 2009