This was billed as a dark thriller, and it starts out as such when George Clare, a college professor, comes home from work to find his beautiful wife murdered by an axe. He’s portrayed sympathetically, and the reader is left to think that he probably didn’t do it, it’s some serial killer in town, which the author will delve into with salacious detail.
Then we learn about the death by suicide of the parents of three young boys. After falling on hard times, they’ve lost the Hale family farm, where generations of Hales raised dairy cattle. George and Katherine happened to live in the same house where the Hales died, and their sons are still in town, which is awfully suspicious. Who is the killer?
The novel follows several different families, but all center on this cursed farm, which Clare bought dirt cheap at foreclosure soon after the suicides. Pretty soon the Hale boys start coming around to do odd jobs, inexorably drawn back to the house they were raised in until the loss of the farm and their parents’ deaths. Because we know from the beginning that Katherine Clare was murdered, and their own parents killed themselves (ruled accidental, but who knows what really happened?) there’s a feeling of malaise over everything, as if everyone is suspcious.
I remember thinking that this book is like a cross between The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Women’s Room. Like so many other protagonists in literary novels, Professor Clare seduces and terribly abuses/uses a troubled young woman with apparently zero sense that he’s doing anything morally wrong. (Ah, the hubris of spoiled upper class white men.) When that’s not enough, he decides to commit fraud and then moves on to other crimes, like being an brutal husband and a mediocre father. Meanwhile, Katherine and the late Ella Hale are portrayed as brilliant, talented, near saintly women bowed down by the grueling and cruel weight of wife and motherhood. That Ella is dead doesn’t remove her from the story, since she appears as a ghost or as ghostly happenings several times.
As a period piece, this has some great characters. I liked Justine, the freewheeling hippy weaver with her homemade soups and llamas and unshaven armpits and solid marriage to a man she loves. I know I was supposed to feel more sorry for Katherine than I did, but she seemed rather one-dimensional, a stand-in for the gentle spirit of femininity, crushed by a cruel phallocratic world. Ella was even worse, being a martyred Madonna who hates her nasty husband, and still agrees to kill herself along with him “because he asked her,” even though she had three boys to raise. That is a kind of pathological passivity that made me skeptical. I can barely imagine such a stupid decision, nor respect the woman who makes it.
So there is one main question in the story: Who killed Katherine Clare? It becomes pretty obvious about halfway through who did it, so much so that even though they never spell it out for you, you know exactly how it happened. The second question becomes, “will the murderer get caught and convicted?”
The resolution of the second question is what put this firmly into the literary camp. Unlike genre fiction, which has its own rules, literary novels emulate life. The ending bothered me a lot, infurated me, exasperated me, and then it didn’t, because I can see how it sort of played into this theme.
I think that the main story is not about these people, but about the house. The realtor says something about how a house chooses its owner, which is creepy and metaphysical, but totally fitting in a book containing ghosts and spiritualists and a cursed farm. The house’s owners die in it, and then the next owner, George Clare, comes into town and directly or indirectly destroys a number of lives.
But even “get out of town” is too facile a theme. Everyone wants to move away from Chosen, but some who move away do worse than some who stay. And the young couple in love who eventually move away together away from the bad influence of George Clare can’t seem to shake his pall. Even Cole Hale, the son whose story is one of the major ones of the book, seems to be drawn back to the house again and again, but says at the end that he wouldn’t mind putting a match to the place. The house is like George Clare, a bad influence whose victims can’t seem to break free from.
So it’s not really a psycho thriller, or a mystery, or a supernatural novel, but a little of all three. And there’s love in this book, quite a few romances, but most of them end badly. Some end horrifically. It’s a dark little book, and quite sad in places, without much happy resolution, but it’s complicated enough to make you think, and so for that reason I liked it.