Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Sudden Light

Title:  A Sudden Light
Author:  Garth Stein
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2014. 416 pages.
ISBN:  1439187037 / 978-1439187036

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through Edelweiss free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "Perhaps that's what life is about - the search for such a connection. The search for magic. The search for the inexplicable. Not in order to explain it, or contain it. Simply in order to feel it. Because in that recognition of the sublime, we see for a moment the entire universe in the palm of our hand. And in that moment, we touch the face of God."

A beautiful setting, a Gothic feel, a ghostly mystery, a dysfunctional family. This book has all the making of an engaging tale. Trevor Riddell is a man telling the story of the summer he was fourteen, of the family secrets he discovered that summer, and of the changes that happened that summer.

This story has many, many (too many perhaps) layers:
  • Trevor as an adult reflecting back.
  • Trevor as a fourteen year old trying to mend his parent's marriage and figure out the secrets of his father's past.
  • Relationship between Trevor's parents.
  • Jones Riddell, Trevor's father returning to his childhood home after 23 years.
  • Relationship between Jones, his sister Serena, and their father Samuel.
  • Ghosts of Riddell House
  • Previous generations - conflicted Benjamin, business baron Elijah, and those around them.
  • Riddell House itself.
An attempt is made to weave a mystery around these different elements and the way in which they relate, but at the base of it all, the story is about a dysfunctional family and the power of relationships to build up and to destroy. Homosexuality and its unacceptability at that time in history, abuse, incest, dementia, other illnesses, and financial & business maneuverings all play a role in this family's past.

My favorite aspects of the book are the cover and the writing itself. The cover is part of what attracted me to the book. The descriptions of the house itself and the estate are as artistic as the cover. The Riddell family fortune comes from timber; the descriptions of the trees and forests seek to portray someone "experiencing the nature of the trees." The descriptions show a very clear environmental bent in the sometimes conflicting goals of business and environmental protection. An important and much needed message for our world. In the book, however, it is overshadowed by the machinations of the Riddell family. Their conflicts may be based on this more universal one, but the book really is about the individuals and the relationships.

Weaved throughout are also references to books and reading, which as an avid reader, I of course love! "With a book - presuming it's a good book - you can depend upon an outcome that adheres to the necessities of drama. The question will be answered. It has to be. The answer may not be happy; we can't guarantee a comedy. Sometimes tragedy strikes. But there will be a conclusion. Of that we can be sure. That's the whole point of a book." Based on the writing, I would definitely read other works by Garth Stein.

Overall, the book, however, does not work for me for a number of reasons. First, I guessed the resolution of the book quite early on. That completely removes the book's ghostly nature, not that it is that strong to begin with. The rest of the story then becomes just a matter of how the book gets to that eventual conclusion. Second, the narrator does not come across as believable. Even in the sections where is portrayed as fourteen year old, "Clever Trevor's" dialogue and actions come across as those of an adult. Finally, the setup and description of the story is of a spooky, somewhat Gothic tale; it is disappointing when the story does not deliver that. The story does a great buildup; there is a sense of something coming and something about to happen, but it never really does. The book delivers a multigenerational family saga with its own conflicts and intrigues but does not fulfill the promise of its description.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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