Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Book Review 2016 #10 - Kate Morton's The Lake House

The Lake House by Kate Morton
Published by: Atria Books
Publication Date: October 20th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 512 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Midsummer has always been celebrated at Loeanneth with a grand gala. The lake house is strewn with lanterns and gondolas float on the river with fireworks dazzling the night sky above the great bonfire. While the Edevane family might enjoy their solitude in Cornwall, they still keep this tradition alive. It is 1933 and this will be the last year the family holds this celebration. Soon the house will be shuttered and it will be a time capsule of that night; the night everything changed. Young Alice Edevane would usually be reveling in these festivities, but this year is different. She no longer has time for Mr. Llewellyn, artist in resident and family friend, or her mother who wants her to help with preparations. She only has time for two things, plotting her first mystery novel and Ben. Ben is the gardener and she fancies herself in love with him. He listens raptly when she tells him about her book and talks to her like an equal. But could her book be what destroyed everything? Because in the wee hours of the night her baby brother Theo was taken from his crib. Seventy years later the case remains unsolved. Alice is now a successful mystery writer but she has never resolved what happened to her baby brother. Enter Sadie Sparrow. She's on leave from the MET with a forced vacation in Cornwall at her grandfather's house. Yet she can't sit still. Sadie stumbles on Loeanneth and the cold case consumes her. Will a fresh set of eyes find the truth of that long ago midsummer night?

There are times in your life when you just need to get away from reality and hide in a book. Sometimes it works and you fall into the story and it consumes you. Other times it backfires on you and all the troubles you were trying to escape are reflected back at you through this medium. Not only is the book too close for comfort, but once you put it down you'll be faced with reality again. Which is the situation I found myself in with Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl, leading to me not being one of the worshipful majority. But that's another story for another time. When I finally picked up The Lake House it was precisely the book I needed at just the right time. It had just enough mystery with just the right level of predictability that I wanted to stay there as long as possible. I usually devour a book in a matter of days, but here I spent a week, taking my time and having a well deserved respite from reality. I languished at Loeanneth. The book became so much a part of me that I dreamt of Cornwall. I remember quite vividly being in the half-dream state where I wasn't quite fully awake but I had already started to leave my dream behind and hearing the garbage trucks making their morning rounds. The beeps were confusing and incongruous to me. There was still a part of me that knew they were garbage trucks, but my thoughts were consumed with the fact they didn't belong. The technology didn't exist yet and they would never spoil the idyll that was the lake house, because that is where I was. I haven't had this kind of dream disassociation since years ago when I thought some crop dusters were Messerschmidt's, again another story for another time.

Kate Morton's books aren't for everyone. In fact they only occasionally work for me. They spend loving detail on atmosphere and if you are more interested in narrative, well you can feel like you are languishing in a story with no forward momentum. The mysteries Morton concocts are very pedestrian. Her own creation, Alice Edevane, would weep for their simplicity. In fact the only thing that didn't ring true to me in The Lake House is that Alice Edevane is this grand dame of mystery writers the likes of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell yet she was never able to solve this mystery in her own life. Yes, you could say it's because she didn't want to know the truth, but that seems cliched. But the truth you need to remember in Morton's book is the mystery is always secondary. Yes, she did a better job this time of spacing out the clues so just when you thought nothing would progress, bam, new evidence showed up on the scene. That doesn't mean I didn't figure it out hundreds of pages earlier, but I liked the pacing. I also liked the characters, I felt like they were more fleshed out in this tale. Morton likes to have the old lady with these wonderful stories and secrets that must be passed on or solved by younger generations. It's her thing, it's her trope. But here Alice was so alive. She was the spark that kept things together. She's a spunky old lady who plays her cards close to her chest, and I just loved that. Instead of a dead aunt, a mother on her deathbed, or an old lady in a nursing home, the elderly lady this time around was active not passive and it made a huge difference.

While having the disappearance of the one Edevane son as the fulcrum this book is really about women. Particularly the bond between mothers and daughters and all the shapes and forms these bonds come in. I liked that we had mothers who knew the best thing for their child was to let them go, while also having mothers so selfish they pushed their daughter away for the sake of their own appearance. It really cast a light on the fact that there's not just one single and simple way that mothers and daughters interact. People are so different and to assume that their relationships are all the same is folly. What is also interesting is to see how the mother daughter relationship is formed by experience and also by society's conventions and how those conventions have changed over time. The relationship between Alice's mother and grandmother, women of the previous century, was more staid and reserved, because of the time and also a tragedy Alice's grandmother endured. Going forward Alice's mother wants to have a better relationship with her own daughters but realizes that her husband stands in the way of her being the "fun" parent and therefore sadly accepts her fate. Then we look to Sadie and how her own mother threw her out because Sadie got pregnant and opted to give the baby up for adoption. Just a few women, and yet their relationships are so complex and we are given insight into each one, we get to understand if not empathize with how they lived and loved.

But if I'm honest what really intrigued me with The Lake House was the real life parallels. Theo's disappearance has parallels to the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, which the book doesn't shy away from pointing out. There's something about these unsolved crimes that echo down the generations and draw us in and therefore make for great inclusions in fiction. As for my Lindbergh baby obsession, it's not as bad as my Jack the Ripper obsession, though both make me wish I could time travel just to solve unsolved crime. The thing is Lindbergh went to the same university as me and I can actually see the house where he lived from my office window. As for the kidnapping, I saw a riveting one person play on the convicted kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann that has always stuck with me. Though it wasn't just the Lindbergh allusions that I loved. Mr. Llewellyn and his children's book based on Alice's mother had so much Lewis Carroll in it I could sqwee for joy. Plus Morton played with our preconceptions based on this real life connection. She threw suspicion on Mr. Llewellyn but also called into question his relationship with the family, much as Carroll's was with the Liddells. Oh, and to hark back to those great dames of detection, there's more than a little Anne Perry in Alice Edevane. Of course Anne Perry's childhood crime of murdering her best friend's mother prior to becoming a bestselling crime writer was immortalized in the wonderful film Heavenly Creatures. This crime occurred in New Zealand, a stone throws from Morton's Australia. The idea that Alice might somehow be guilty and therefore an unreliable narrator, I can't tell you how much I loved this. Also the Mitford parallels, with Deborah, Alice, and Clemmie Edevane mirroring Diana, Nancy, and Jessica Mitford respectively was just the cherry on top of the sundae.

The only real problem I had with the entire book was Sadie Sparrow. While you might think it's a hatred of her pigheadedness and her just not really listening to people, it has nothing to do with that, I could overlook that as character flaws. My problem is her name: Sadie Sparrow. I'm sure when everyone first saw the Doctor Who episode "Blink" written by Steven Moffat they all thought that Sally Sparrow was the coolest name ever and were wishing that they had thought of it first. I know I did and I'm a reviewer not a writer! In fact my handle on my knitting site actually is Sally Sparrow, I am unashamed of my geekiness and I fully admit it. It's such a unique and distinctive name that once you hear it you can't ever forget it. Now here we have Sadie Sparrow. She's like a weak imitation, a bad knock off, a wannabe Sally but alwaysbe Sadie. Why would you EVER choose this as your characters name? Why would an editor ever let you do it? Yes the name might seem perfectly acceptable to you, the author, but it's not. This name wasn't your invention. To make matters worse Sally and her friend Kathy joke about being investigators, Sparrow and Nightingale! A bit ITV, but I'd still watch it. And here's "Sadie" being all investigative and then a PI! I'm sorry. This is just unacceptable. You could argue it's coincidence, that Kate Morton has never even seen Doctor Who. Guess what? I don't care. Yes her book has lots of real life connections and allusions, but she makes them her own. If it was a original thought or Sally just became Sadie, it's too close and MUST be changed. This isn't Moffat, it's Morton. And the last thing any writer wants to be is Moffat.


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