In the last month, I’ve read a novel about two Italian friends, a mystery about a missing baby, and a drug addict’s memoir (not to mention an essay featuring an uninvited visit by male genitalia).
Which led me to wonder what I should write about in my March 2016 book review.
The Lake House by Kate Morton (not to be confused with the Sandra Bullock/Keanu Reeves movie of the same name) is a complex novel on two levels. Structurally, it involves multiple plot lines. It bounces back and forth in time–mostly between the early 1930’s, when an eleven-month-old disappears, and contemporary times. It also jumps around among multiple points of view. From this reviewer’s perspective, it’s also complex because there are things I really, really liked about it and things I really didn’t.
The basic story is this: whatever happened to baby Theo? This is not a typical mystery as there isn’t a dead body in the first chapter. In fact, it’s not even clear it’s a mystery at all when the novel opens. But soon it becomes clear that Theo’s unexplained disappearance is at the crux of so much that happens in the novel and, indeed, contributes to many of the underlying subplots and mysteries.
Morton is a master at deftly proposing numerous plausible theories as the novel progresses about what happened to the boy, and whether or not he died way back in 1933, while also weaving so many other questions into the work. Who was the boy’s father? Who was Ben? What exactly happened to Anthony and his friend in World War I that left Anthony with such a grave case of PTSD? Will Sadie ever connect with her biological daughter? Will she solve the case of the missing mother? There are many story lines to keep the reader intrigued, and even though much of the novel takes place nearly a century ago, the experiences of the characters are timeless.
Although Theo is the character we most worry about, 80-something-year-old Alice is the charming one, invoking images of a more likeable Olive Kitteridge with a dry, sarcastic humor, a realistic perspective on aging, and a deep understanding of people.
“When you get to my age you find you’ve put more people in the ground than you could gather for morning tea.”
There were people everywhere, most of them adolescents. Alice felt a surge of pity for them, stuck as they were within the white-hot glow of youth, when everything seemed so vital, so essential, so important.
Alice preferred a garden with personality, but there was a difference between character and chaos.
Alice, like Morton, is a mystery writer, and she occasionally muses on the craft of writing as well as life itself.
“Murder in and of itself was not engaging; it was the drive to kill, the human factor, the fervors and furies motivating the dreadful act that rendered it compelling.” Alice wondered whether we all haven’t “experienced the desire to kill, if only for a moment.”
Eleanor, the mother of both Alice and Theo, is a charming young woman at first–but motherhood, and the loss of her husband to PTSD, and the loss of her only son, as well, changes her, and although the reader gets to know her through a more distant lens, her life story is actually the most poignant of all.
Most of the other characters are intriguing, too. Alice’s younger sister Clemmie, though she has a small part in this novel, is so fascinating for the era in which she lived that she could easily become a protagonist in her own right. The men (Anthony, Ben, Mr. Llewellyn, and Bertie) each have their own intriguing backstories. Interestingly, Sadie, the contemporary protagonist, is the least interesting of the bunch, and while her backstory would be compelling if attached to a person in real life, it—and her persona–somehow didn’t grab me here.
Thematically, I’m a sucker for stories about difficult family relationships, and The Lake House has them in spades with conflict between mothers and children, sisters and sisters, mothers and nannies, wives and husbands. It also offers plenty of decades-long secrets to heighten the stakes all the way around.
Other themes include the ravaging effects of war, aging, and loss.
On war: How do you tell a man to kill and then expect him to go back to normal?
On aging: I was surprised to learn Morton is as young as she is (born 1976), given her wise perspective on aging and her ability to capture Alice’s inner voice. It’s not easy, getting old, feeling one’s relevance slip away…it was true what people said, that when one became old (and how sneakily that happened, how sly time was), memories of the long-ago past, repressed for decades, were suddenly bright and clear.
On loss: Just one more loss in a world that had decided life was cheap.
And finally, two thumbs up for Morton’s skillful use of language (although the opening pages were so lush that the descriptive prose wore shades of purple). Some examples:
Little animal squeaks of satisfaction, tiny velvet hands on the moon of her swollen breast, the vast, still quietness of the world beyond.
Peter would have been less surprised had he opened the door and found her belly-dancing in coin-rimmed silken robes.
Ben jumped down from the mower and…supposed there was nothing for it but to give the machine a few minutes to rethink its position.
Now, for the thumbs down:
There are just too, too many coincidences. At the highest level, the various plots and subplots all revolve around some form of motherly distress: Eleanor and her missing child Theo; the tense relationship between Constance and her daughter Eleanor; the missing mother of Caitlyn Bailey; the lost relationship between Sadie and the daughter she placed for adoption years ago. Individually, each of these story lines has merit, but the continuing focus on mother/child themes throughout the stories feels like an overdose and serves to lessen rather than strengthen the overall work. (Hard to believe I’m saying this, as mother/child relationships permeate my writing and my life, but it’s true.)
On a plot level, most of the stories come to resolution through coincidence rather than cause and effect: books appear on a librarian’s desk at just the right time; documentation of what happened decades ago is conveniently discovered although it had been overlooked by a police investigation; revenge for one loss is realized on the same night as Theo’s disappearance (although it is unrelated to his disappearance), and then there’s the final plot twist which, for spoiler reasons, I won’t name but which seems altogether too implausible and, well, too sweet.
Issues don’t wrap up neatly, or all at the same time, in real life, and so they shouldn’t in fiction either. Unfortunately, The Lake House is neatly wrapped up in the same way the open plot lines all happily concluded in the final episode of Downton Abbey. Of course, this is a matter of personal preference, and Morton believes that, “a book must have narrative rightness. You can have really sad stories,” she says, “but readers must feel at the end that the right thing has happened.” I see her point, but I certainly don’t think every right thing has to happen.
The Lake House was selected by one of my book clubs, and the overall consensus by the group was that it was too long, and they wouldn’t read another of Morton’s books. Although I do think it could have been shorter than 512 pages, I would definitely read Morton again as a contemporary mystery writer with a resounding voice and literary appeal.