by Barbara Michaels
The Past Holds Terrors...
That Can't Be Forgotten
There are secrets buried at Maidenwood--dark secrets that span generations. Medical student Julie Newcomb, who once spent four miserable childhood years at this rundown Virginia plantation, would rather not resurrect ancient memories, or face her own fears.
Yet Julie cannot refuse her relatives' plea that she spend her summer caring for the bedridden--but still malevolent--family patriarch. Reluctantly, Julie agrees, praying that life at Maidenwood will not be as bleak as before. From the first, though, Julie finds Maidenwood a haunted place, not merely echoing with grim reminders, but filled with dark secrets that will become part of her life even today.
For the genre, this was pretty good reading. A lightweight distraction from everyday life.
It seems I can't get through a single Barbara Michaels book without being irritated by something-- this time it was mostly some characters cast from the "stereotypically ignorant, backward, religious Southerner" mold (or maybe more the protagonist's tiresome stereotyping of so many fellow characters)-- but perhaps a little irritation isn't such a bad thing in a book. It keeps me on my toes. Besides, if I don't have something to gripe about, what can I put in these book reviews?! ;o)
But to return to seriousness-- Maybe I was just in the right mood, but I enjoyed the book. Very readable. The mystery's not the strongest. I had most of it figured out and get the feeling that I should've guessed the rest, too. This was an entertaining read that I'd happily recommend to fellow fans of modern(ish) gothic romance/mystery.
Specifics (with SPOILERS):
-- Published in 1985. I wonder if younger readers of this book-- the ones who don't remember life without cell phones-- would have a different reading experience than someone my age... I was a kid in 1985. I never experienced the 80s as a teen, much less as an adult, but I very clearly remember a time when cell phones were not ubiquitous-- before "Internet" was a household word. I don't know that such a slight variance in age makes as much difference as countless other factors (gender, personality, etc.). After all, I read and enjoy books published a century or two before I was born. Still, my experience of those books must be very different from that of contemporary readers. ...Just an interesting thing to ponder, every once in a while...
-- Joe Danner. Should I find him an offensive stereotype (ignorant, not-very-bright, former wife-beater turned religious nut)? I'm not sure if I should, but... I kinda do. Not that there aren't people like that... (Everywhere, one might add. Not just in Virginia or the South as a region.)
-- This author's typical heroine seems to have a chip on her shoulder about "women's rights". This one wasn't the worst case I've seen, but it's still a whiny old song that grinds on my nerves with every chorus. Julie doesn't want to take care of her horrible grandmother. She resents the fact that she's expected to fall into line, while her cousin (who will inherit the whole shebang, apparently) is exempt from unpleasant family tasks because he's a man, and men don't have to do that sort of thing. Well... Don't do it, then. But no, she "has" to, because her mother will do it, if she doesn't... Ugh. That's your mother's choice. (Julie's mother isn't a particularly sympathetic character. Let her take care of her awful mother, if she feels a female relative must be there. Fairly heartless to send her daughter to do the job she herself can't stomach...)
-- Julie doesn't win any points by suggesting that the people in the area wouldn't be in favor of women's rights, because they're "rednecks". *eyeroll*
-- You can count on Barbara Michaels to sneak a little Egyptology into the book. (It had to be a little game she played with her most faithful readers. There's something in every book!) This time it was pathologists who "were able to perform histological sections" on Egyptian mummies. (They found that the mummies had parasitic worms, back when they weren't quite so mummified. Yuck.) Oh! There was also something about someone at the age of eighty seeming "older than the Pyramids" to an eighteen-year-old.
-- "The decay of the house was something they couldn't blame on the damn Yankees. It had survived the 'War Between the States', as they called it in these parts." *more eyerolling*
-- When Julie's trying to figure out how she can get a ride home from town: "Mrs Danner squeaked, 'There's Will Smith, Mr. Danner. He obliges for some of the ladies.' 'Be quiet, woman. Will's a drunk and a fornicator. No decent female would get in that car of his.'" Ha ha ha... I know "Will Smith" isn't that unusual of a name, but it still gave me a laugh.
-- Julie offers Alan a McDonald's french fry, but he declines. "'That stuff is poison to your system. I'd rather starve.'" Have some people always been obnoxious about fast food? I guess so...
-- I gather that despite the four years she spent on the old homestead, Julie's supposed to be a city girl. She carries a stick to ward off rabid possums and rabbits. Yes, Virginia is crawling with rabid possums, I'm sure. Based on my own experience in the wilds of the American South, Julie needs to be more concerned about snakes than rabies, of all things.
-- People gave Alan trouble about working on Saturday and Sunday, because one or the other (depending on who's asked) is the Sabbath? I find that doubtful. Even if some people didn't exactly approve of people working on the Sabbath, how many would be kooky enough confront a stranger who was working in a field in the middle of nowhere? Especially in the mid-1980s. (Did Barbara Michaels have any actual experience in the South? Did she believe all this crap?)
-- Someone sends Alan a letter: "'You are sinning against God's Holy Word when you dig up dead bodies. If you don't stop you will be struck by His Rath.'" *SIGH* (Reading through my notes is making me wonder if I liked this book so much, after all... I wish the author would've eased up on the "religious nutcase" stereotyping!)
-- "I had wondered how a woman veterinarian could establish a practice in an area like this, where macho traditions prevailed and most of a vet's practice involved farm animals." (Ouch! I sprained an eye with all that rolling!)
-- For all her "pro-woman"/"ooh, I'm soooo enlightened" talk, Julie doesn't treat Mrs. Danner very kindly. (After the incident with the attempted poisoning of the dog, I don't blame her, but this was before that.) She talks down to her. Mrs. Danner is not very intelligent. She's also poor, low-class, bullied by her husband, and (because of that husband) estranged from her children. Basically, she's not in a very good position, any way you look at it. Taking all that into consideration, Julie's way of addressing her is not only insulting but at least bordering on cruel. So much for Julie's being such an open-minded social radical, I guess!
-- I found it amusing that Julie turned out to be so great at "reconstruction" (think Bones), without any serious training or experience. Maybe we're supposed to gather that her success was really just Melissa's spirit guiding her hands...
-- Martha has people reading to her for hours every day. It's the mid-1980s. Why not get her a TV-- a radio-- a set of books-on-tape?! I'm sure it was addressed early on, but I don't recall. Probably Martha just doesn't want those things. Well, I'm a meanie, because if I was cursed with an evil witch who hated me instead of normal, affectionate grandmothers, I'd probably just refuse to read to her every day. She could make do with TV, radio, etc. ~shrug~ I must be an awful person.
-- "It's funny how defenseless you feel in your bare feet." So true!
-- Ok. My credulity is stretched. Not by the ghosty parts of the book. (Well, ok, those aren't realistic, either, of course...) Julie's mother is too proud to have Julie live with her while she's getting back on her feet after Julie's father leaves them. Instead, she sends Julie home to the mother she herself can't stand. Julie is emotionally and physically abused. Julie blocks out most of those memories-- four years of her youth!-- and it only comes back (in chunks) once she's back in the old house. Is it possible? I guess. But what kind of mother would send her daughter to a place she must have known was awful? I find it unlikely that Julie would've blocked out all those memories, too. But whatever...
-- Similarly, Alan is a grown man by the time he meets Martha-- completely in love with Julie (and in a physical relationship with her, no less)-- and yet Martha somehow convinces him that he's essentially worthless and that Julie doesn't really want anything to do with him because of his lowly origins. ...Yeah. I'm skeptical. Martha must've had magical powers...
-- I have to admit that I'd kind of forgotten who Melissa was, until the "exciting conclusion". The part of the story where she was mentioned didn't make much of an impression, I guess.
-- I'd figured out that Matt was the one intent on destroying the reconstruction. That was pretty obvious, from the way he reacted to it-- plus it was clear from the beginning that something was up with him. What I was wrong about, though, was the identity of the skeleton. I was sure it would turn out to be either the Danner girl or some other girl that Matt had fooled around with and gotten pregnant. She would've been imprisoned in that little room and eventually she and the infant would've been murdered-- either by Matt or by Martha. Martha was clearly in on the secret, too. Well, it wasn't that far off, I guess.
-- The explanation of how Ms. Hornbeak found the Maydon's Hundred graveyard because she was so dim-witted-- just like Julie's ancestor, which meant they were on the same wavelength-- while Alan was just so darned brilliant that he over-complicated things... Hm.
-- The twist at the end is creeeeeepy! Martha's been going out, burning the clothes and reburying the bodies/skeletal remains every year, on the anniversary of the murders-- every since she killed her sister and niece/nephew? And the only reason they were found at all, this time, was that Martha had suffered her stroke and as a consequence was unable to go and put them back out of sight before someone else stumbled across them? Oooooooooh... ~shiver~
-- So, for the sake of that ending... and Elvis the dog... and Alan (whom I liked better than many of the author's romantic heroes)... I guess I can forgive the annoying stereotypes.