by Barbara Michaels
Diana Reed will do anything to get to the truth. Posing as a landscape architect at the sprawling estate recently purchased by a newly-wealthy couple, she prowls the strange old house determined to unlock its secrets. But each mystery Diana uncovers is more unsettling than the last, as odd visions, scents, and sounds pervade an atmosphere of dread and barely suppressed violence. And in her zealous search for answers, she may have inadvertently opened a door to something frightening and deadly that can never be closed again.
It held my interest, but it's not one of the author's best works. Still, it served its purpose of providing light entertainment. (That said, it's not the lightest "light entertainment", either...)
I altered the publisher's blurb, because I felt it gave away too much information-- things that you aren't supposed to know at the beginning of the story.
Specific Tidbits (with SPOILERS):
-- I enjoyed the gardening aspect of the book, since I'm trying to get my own garden into order. Nothing on the scale of the gardens in the book, of course, but it's more than enough for me. (Especially since I don't employ a gardener!)
-- "I do wish you'd stop using me as a home for abandoned cacti. I hate cacti." I don't like them, either. They're scary.
-- "'It is later than you think.' That was a popular motto for sundials-- why, she could not imagine; who wanted to be reminded, when he strolled through a beautiful garden, that his own existence was scarcely less ephemeral? 'Tempus fugit' wasn't much better, especially for people who were probably only too well aware of the rapid passing of time. Fortunately there were a few cheerful mottoes. 'Count only the sunny hours', for instance." Yes, "sunny hours" for me, please. I don't need a reminder of mortality.
-- At one point, Diana is giving the animals their nightly medicine. "Heartworm pills for all the dogs, as a preventative measure..." What, every day? Maybe it just happened to be time for their monthly dosage, because I've never heard of heartworm medicine that had to be given daily. That would be very inconvenient!
-- The bit about the "world's largest rose bush" (planted in Arizona in 1885) was so intriguing I had to look it up online. Amazing!
-- "...that nightmare indicated there was something particularly nasty in the woodpile of her subconscious." Heh...
-- "It would have been an amiably attractive face had it not been for her eyes-- cold as muddy-brown ice and piercing as twin gimlets." Ah, my favorite! Brown eyes = mud, of course. (Sensitive? Who, me?)
-- Emily is suffering a breakdown of some sort over the continuous noise of demolition. Her husband notices this and closes the windows. My question: Why were the windows open to begin with, when there was demolition work just outside? Wouldn't they be closed in anticipation of the noise-- not to mention dust?
-- A man about to run a piece of heavy machinery is warned to watch out for the dogs that are loose. Diana adds a warning about the cats, but no-- "You don't need to worry about them; they have sense enough to get out of the way." ...Uh, yeah. Sure. That explains why cats are never run over by cars...
-- "A dog's face is capable of only limited displays of emotion, but Baby's showed as much terror as a dog is capable of showing." This is the second time (I think) that I've seen this author write about the limited facial expressions of dogs. Now, I'll grant you that they are limited in comparison to humans, but dogs actually have very mobile faces, and someone who spends much time with them can learn to read their expressions fairly accurately. (Just sayin'...)
-- There's heavier cursing in this book than in most of the Barbara Michaels gothic novels I've read to date. I'm not sure why... It was published in the 90s, so maybe she thought the cursing was necessary to "modernize" it.
-- "'Maybe I'm not cut out for country living.' 'You get used to it. At least most people do.' Mary Jo's face softened. 'Poor Andy never has, not really. He covers up well, and he'll do what's necessary, but he hates the whole scene-- hunting, trapping, the way some of the people around here neglect and abandon pets.'" ...This is set in Virginia, right? Or somewhere in that part of the country. You can argue that hunting and trapping are an element of "country life", but the suggestion that country folk are the only ones who neglect or abandon pets is frustrating. There's plenty of animal abuse in cities, too. Also, though I've never gone hunting myself, I fully believe that if it's done the right way, an animal killed for food by a hunter is treated with greater respect (and has lived a better, more natural life) than most of the ones that end up in grocery stores and restaurants. Anyone who eats meat is being hypocritical if they have a problem with "food hunting". Trophy hunting is another subject altogether...
-- There are a lot of people calling a woman "lady". Enough that it caught my attention.
-- I know it's supposed to be a joke, but Mary Jo calling Walt an "ignorant redneck" because he didn't understand a reference to Miss Havisham? Obnoxious. (I didn't really like Mary Jo as well as I feel the reader is meant to.)
-- I was beginning to think we wouldn't have the typical Barbara Michaels reference to Egypt/mummies in this book, but I should never have doubted! The air in the shut-off stairwell is "as stale as some old tomb". Later, there are "the mummified bodies of long-dead insects", and Diana reflects that she has seen "mummies in museum cases" that looked better than the dusty, dirty, cobwebbed Andy.
-- The costume curator/volunteer at the little historical society museum (or whatever it was) tells Diana that she doesn't "get that many sympathetic, intelligent visitors". No, not out here in the sticks. *eyeroll*
-- I had to smile when Diana described her multitude of problems as "all the standard plot cliches of contemporary thrillers". As long as you know you're doling out cliches...
-- Rudbeckia ("plain old black-eyed Susan") is "a vulgar sort of flower, not suited to a formal garden"-- apparently. I won't argue the point about its suitability for a formal garden, since I'm not especially interested in or knowledgeable about formal gardens, but to call a flower "vulgar" strikes me as pretentious. You don't like a particular flower? Fine, but please don't call them vulgar. How silly!
-- Mercurochrome. It was obviously an antiseptic, but I've never heard of it before. We used iodine, rubbing alcohol, or hydrogen peroxide, when I was a kid.
-- "His Aunt Bertha is so cheap she buys her kids' clothes at Goodwill..." Well, let me just add another underline to the "don't like Mary Jo" sentiment... Seriously, though! Mary Jo, as we are so frequently reminded, works hard for her money. She juggles multiple jobs to put herself through college, and when we get a description of her own clothing, it's clear that she doesn't have much to spend. Why would Mary Jo, of all people, feel the need to vocally judge someone else for buying second-hand clothes? If they're clean and in reasonable condition, what difference does it make where they come from? What a snob!
-- "Cats always pick the laps of the people who don't like them." Oh? That doesn't make much sense.
-- When Diana comes back, at the end of the book, she looks at the garden and sees "two giant magnolias" that are raising "stately branches above flower beds filled with bright blossoming annuals". This is a really nit-picky observation, but I've always heard/observed that flowers (and grass) don't do well under Southern magnolias. Too much shade, too much root competition. Also, I don't think it's at all easy to transplant a large magnolia. ...But whatever. Carry on. Dream a happy dream of an Insta-Garden with magical flowers that flourish in dense shade while contending with bullying tree roots.
-- "...How do you think Papa would have reacted if he found his blossom of Southern womanhood in the arms of a dirty foreigner?" ...Um, what? This is the kind of thing that crops up in Barbara Michaels books a little too frequently. Did she have a problem with the South? Because it certainly feels that way, sometimes. Disappointing. Now, I'm not saying that "Papa" wouldn't have had a problem with his daughter having a relationship with a foreigner (especially since the "foreigner" in question was a poor and lowly workman)-- but the whole "blossom of Southern womanhood" thing really puts a special twist on it. So wealthy, snobbish, controlling Yankee-Papa would've been totally ok with his "blossom of Northern womanhood" falling in love with a "nobody"? Yeah, I'm sure he would've been overjoyed at the prospect of such a son-in-law.
-- "Why does a happy ending have to be two people falling into one another's arms?" True, but kind of funny coming from this author-- and particularly so when spoken by a character on the very verge of... well, falling into another character's arms!
-- When Andy asks Diana why she chose him-- which was a surprise, because it felt like she was leaning toward Walt the whole time!-- she answers that he makes her laugh. His reply? "So does Zero Mostel." ...Huh? This was written in the early 90s. That actor died in the 70s. Andy is 25 or so, which means he would've been a young child when Mostel was still alive and making movies. Not exactly a topical reference, in other words. Is it just me, or was that a very odd thing for him to have said? (ETA: Ok, just remembered that they watched The Producers at some point in the book... So it's not quite so out-of-the-blue bizarre, I guess, but I still stand by my initial reaction that it was a weird thing to say.)
-- The joke about the long showers and the water conservation... So romantic. I like Andy-- and could've liked him (with Diana) more if he'd seemed less like a brother/Mary Jo's destined match during most of the book-- but that was kind of gross, to be honest. It wasn't the best note to end on, that's for sure!
-- The ghost story explanation was something of a let-down. As I've seen others comment, it's thin at best. Though it's implied, there's also no explicit answer to who was scamming Miss Musser-- and certainly no resolution/comeuppance on that score. Then we have Larry getting the blame for Brad's murder, from everyone but a few in the know. Not very nice. I guess it's supposed to spare Diana's mother, but what about Larry's family? I guess they don't matter! Brad's murder... Larry's suicide... Diana's father's suicide... The book's a downer on several fronts. But since none of it seems real, it's easy enough to not care much, on way or the other.
-- Not a favorite, but I can't say I'm sorry I read it, faults and all.