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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Atmospheric Family Secrets Novel Falls Flat for Me. Somehow.

(Image from Book Depository)

After her young daughter dies in a freak accident, photographer Clare Porterfield struggles to move on.  Consumed by grief, the 30-year-old can't summon the energy to save her collapsing marriage, let alone dig herself out of the deep, dark hole of sadness in which she's been wallowing since her daughter's death.  So, when she receives an invitation from a wealthy philanthropist to put together a photography exhibition in her hometown of Galveston, Texas, she welcomes the chance to flee.  

The peculiar rhythm of life on the island comforts Clare, even as it reminds her how out of synch she now is with the place she once called home.  Rifling through historical photographs of Galveston reminds her why she loves the island, a spot still as vivid and mysterious as it's always been.  She's particularly fascinated by the story of Stella Carraday, a local woman said to have drowned in the Great Hurricane of 1900.  The image of Stella swinging from her dining room chandelier, her long hair tangled in the crystal light fixture, has always haunted Clare's imagination.  Somehow, she knows there's more to Stella's oft-told story.  As she digs into the dead woman's history, Clare can't help but reflect on her own dealings with the enigmatic Carrady Family.  Secrets, old and new, swirl in the air of their grand old house, secrets Clare vows to bring to light.  

Although she's urged—more than once—to leave the past where it belongs, her fascination with Stella is the only thing that's keeping Clare going.  When she solves all Galveston's mysteries, she'll have to face her personal problems—a terrifying prospect.  And yet, her issues are more tied to the island than she ever imagined.  Finding the answers she seeks may just give her the closure she seeks ... or destroy her fragile psyche forever.  

Atmospheric and eerie, The Drowning House by Elizabeth Black is an evocative, assured debut.  The writing brings Galveston to life in all its complex, contradictory glory.  While most of the characters aren't particularly likable, they're definitely interesting.  The mystery of Stella Carraday's fate captured my imagination just as surely as it did Clare's.  With all of these intriguing elements, The Drowning House should have been an intense, satisfying read.  And yet, it falls flat somehow.  Maybe it's because of the novel's anti-climatic ending or its sad, depressing subject matter or maybe just the fact that so many things in the story were wrapped up in ways that felt incomplete and just clumsy.  I'm not sure exactly why, but I wanted to love this one a lot more than I actually did.  Still, considering the skill I see in this first-time novelist, I foresee some great things coming from Elizabeth Black.  And, believe me, I'll be watching for them.

(Readalikes:  Reminded me a bit of Karen White's novels)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (1 F-bomb plus milder invectives), sexual content and depictions of illegal drug use and underage drinking

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of The Drowning House from the generous folks at Doubleday (a division of Random House).  Thank you!


  1. Hmm, if it is a stand-alone could be that the author just tidied her loose ends up too quickly because the reader expected closure. It's tough to make a satisfying end to a mystery. Thanks for the review. Still sounds like something I would read but not rave about.

  2. Oh, shucks. I love atmospheric family secrets novels. I'm always looking for another good one.


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