I adored The Art of Racing in the Rain, so when I had the chance to read Garth Stein’s latest novel, I jumped at it. Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for the opportunity!
Trevor Riddell is about to turn fourteen, and he thought his life hit a low point when the bank repossessed his family home. That was before he learned that his parents were planning a trial separation for the summer. His mother returns to her family in England, and his father packs him up for a trip to his ancestral home, deep in the north woods of Minnesota – the Riddell House, the last remnant of the early 1900s Riddell timber dynasty, and home to an aunt and grandfather that Trevor has never met. Trevor has one objective for the summer: figure out what drove his mother away and how he can push his father into winning her back.
After arriving at Riddell House, however, Trevor finds himself easily distracted from his task. His aunt Serena is fascinating, manipulative, and hell-bent on finding a way to sell the Riddell House so she can travel the world. Trevor’s grandfather appears to be in the early stages of dementia, and though he has surprising moments of clarity, he believes his dead wife still dances for him in the ballroom. Against his will, Trevor is drawn into the history of the house and of his own family. He begins to research his great-uncle Benjamin, who fought against the idea that the Riddells should prosper by destroying the world around them. Before his untimely death, Ben struck a deal with his father about the fate of the Riddell House that has not yet been honored, and the consequences have reached right down through the century to Trevor.
A Sudden Light is a ghost story, a coming-of-age story, and a family saga. It has a distinctly gothic feel. Riddell House is massive and decaying – all stone and logs creeping with moss and ivy, and pillars made out of tree trunks still covered in bark. There are hidden staircases, entire wings of unused rooms, and plenty of spaces to hide things that shouldn’t necessarily have gone missing. Trevor imagines that an invisible fog of decay permeates the house, but he mentions several times that the house seems to be alive and breathing. The woods surrounding the house are still dense enough to get lost in, and though the house is technically part of a neighborhood community, it feels incredibly remote.
Stein really is an amazing writer. This novel examines some deep questions about family relationships, conservation, and spiritualism, but it never feels heavy. Every once in a while, I caught myself looking at Trevor’s narration and thinking, “I don’t know any fourteen year old boys who talk like that.” But the story is told as a flashback, an adult Trevor recalling one of the most important summers of his life, so his perspective is bound to be different. Sometimes the shift between Trevor’s summer at Riddell House and Ben’s story were a little abrupt, but both stories were interesting, so I didn’t mind it too much.
According to the note to readers by Trish Todd at the beginning of the book, this story originally came to life as a play by Stein called “Brother Jones,” which debuted in LA in 2005. I can’t imagine this as a play. I feel like so much of the development takes place inside Trevor’s mind, and several scenes (from the end of the novel in particular) would have been challenging to stage. This book was a strange mix of beautiful, creepy, and terribly sad, but it was a good read!