Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Family Secrets, Ghosts, and Greed: Sudden Light by Garth Stein

The Riddell family has a problem. The patriarch Samuel thinks he has a moral duty to fulfill the intentions of his ancestors and let the family estate return to forest as an expiation of the sins of the fathers. The 'fathers' having been a money grubbing, soulless timber baron who decimated the forests of Puget Sound for family wealth. 

Samuel's daughter Serena wants to sell the land to developers and take a cruise around the world. Brother Jones is in a trial separation and thinks that money will solve his martial problems. He has returned home to assist his sister in making the old man sell and has brought his fourteen year old son Trevor along. 

Trevor has never seen his father's childhood home or met his estranged family. The bright, bored teenager perceives there is something more going on and sets out to solve the family mystery. He is assisted by the ghosts of his ancestors. What he learns is not nice. 

When I requested Garth Stein's A Sudden Light  from Simon and Schuster through NetGalley I had not realized it was a ghost story. It is also Gothic, derivative, and discomforting. It is a family drama, a coming of age story, and a mystery as well. Have I left out any genres? Romance? Yep. Got it and it's a gay relationship. And incestuous lust. Philosophy, religion, morality, and environmental issues all show up as well. In the words of Tim Gunn, it is a "hot mess."

The creepy psycho aunt and the ghosts were bad enough, but it was the overuse of easy information dumping and plot problem solving that made me put the book aside for a few days as I considered finishing it or forgetting it. I can handle ghosts, if I know it's a ghost story. Finding one secret room with a hundred year old diary that reveals his ancestor's secrets is iffy. Finding another 100 year journal that sheds light on his great-uncle's death is stretching credulity. Finding hidden letters that reveal information that brings about the denouncement is overboard. And all those back stories told by ghosts...

Perhaps had I realized I was reading Genre fiction I would have come at it with a more open mind. (Amazon has it listed under Genre Fiction, Horror, Ghosts. Other places it is categorized under Young Adult, Coming of Age!)

Stein said his original idea of writing about a house turned into a play which turned into Sudden Light*. He also references that it is about father-son relationships. It is a good look at How Not To Father. Both Trevor's mother and his father's mother are referenced but are absent. Which leaves us with Serena, that crazy girl.

There are a lot of reviews online by readers who enjoyed this book. Some mention it's failures or weaknesses. Others related to Trevor's struggle with "manhood" as he dips his toes into the complexities of the adult world.

Stein's previous book The Art of Running in the Rain was a best seller when I  read it with a book club a few years back. The story is told from the family dog's point of view. Everyone loved it. Except me. My problem was... it was improbable that the dog could know and understand all the things were were asked to believe he knew.


Sudden Light by Garth Stein
Simon and Schuster
Publication September 30, 2014
  • ISBN-10: 1439187037
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439187036
A Sudden Light

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