On The Edge of the Woods, by Diane Tyrrel

>> Friday, March 10, 2006

book coverOn my neverending quest for gothics, especially modern gothics in the tradition of some of Barbara Michaels' books, someone suggested Diane Tyrrel's debut novel, On The Edge of the Woods. And seeing the comparison made right there on the back cover was a good sign.

And speaking of covers, I quite liked this one. Even if I hadn't heard anything about the book, it would have made me pick it up...I'm a sucker for "mysterious house" covers! ;-)

It was a white elephant of a house -- a turn-of-the-century rambling manor in the shadows of the Sierras, full of intriguing nooks and crannies, rich with architectural details and delights. Architect Stacy Addison knew that she had come home the moment she saw it. And even though it needed months of renovations, nothing would stop Stacy from buying this beautiful house on the edge of a fairy tale-like forest. Not the fact that it was hours from her life and job in San Francisco, or that her intriguing new neighbor Brand Vandevere had wanted the house first. Especially not that.

But then come the threatening notes, the phone hangups -- and the harassment. Someone doesn't want Stacy in the house, and will stop at nothing to see her leave. But not just the house, Stacy slowly realizes. Someone wants her gone -- permanently ...
Even though I don't really see the resemblance to Barbara Michaels, OTEOTW was actually pretty good. I'd rate it a B-, even though I'm pretty sure people who aren't as tolerant as I am when it comes to modern gothics would rate it lower.

Architect Stacy Addison has a vague desire to buy a summer and weekend residence in the Californian Sierras. She is half-heartedly looking at some houses, not really sure if she really means to go ahead with her plans, when she sees the house she somehow knows is meant to be hers. Conscious of the fact that it's too big, too run-down and probably too expensive for her, she makes the best bid she can afford... and it is accepted.

But as she begins to spend more and more time there and getting to know her neighbours (the very welcoming Tessa, the outwardly charming Saul, the rude but very attractive Brand, who everyone tells her was very anxious to buy the house himself), the weirdness begins. From strange phone calls harassing her at work in San Francisco to creepy messages written on the wood floors under the carpets, from strange sounds to cryptic and mysterious letters left behind by the previous owner, Stacy starts to get the feeling someone doesn't want her there.

The story encompasses a long time, about a year, and that works well, because it's a leisurely book. It's also a book that feels much longer than the barely 350 pages it is, not because it's boring, or tedious, but I think partly because of the long time it covers, partly because the story is not at all fast-paced. It's a story of the slow development of Stacy's life in the house, with some shocking events, yes, but all spaced out enough that it makes sense that she's not running away screaming into the woods. That said, at times it did feel to me that Stacy wasn't worried enough, or not taking enough steps to figure out what was going on, or not talking to people she should be talking to and demanding the truth. It didn't really make her TSTL in my eyes, because I kind of could see why she'd act the way she did, but at times I got a bit frustrated by her lack of proactiveness.

The slow pace and the long period covered also made Stacy's relationship with Brand work better than it might have (in the gothic tradition, who exactly the hero is isn't exactly straightforward from the beginning, but since the fact that it's Brand is mentioned right on the back cover blurb, I'm not going to hide it here). I guess I could have been more irritated than I was by the way her relationship with Brand seems to stall after each apparent step forward. I know I was, at some points (especially when NOTHING happened after that Fourth of July!), but I was also very aware that this is how it sometimes is in real life. I've had things like that happen... one night it looks like the guy is SO into you, and you expect for things to progress in the next few days, and then... nothing. And part of your mind says "call him", but the other says "what if he just had had too much to drink and really isn't into you at all?", so you end up not doing anything yourself and things just fizzle out. And sometimes you just don't ever find out what was going on, but sometimes you do, and it turns out the guy really *was* into you, but your ex-boyfriend's friends warned him off, and... er, sorry, going off on a tangent here. I just meant to say I understood this more than I would have liked to, really.

Brand's attitude wasn't so easily excusable. I especially detested seeing him with Alana. The revelations at the end do make it all a bit better, because you kind of understand where he was coming from, but just as with Stacy, I think I would have appreciated a more proactive attitude on his part. In some parts of the book, the constant, never-ending lack of communication got to be a bit much. Both Stacy and Brand seem always content with either what other people tell them or with the half-things they hear, and they NEVER ask each other for clarification.

Ok, so why, if all I seem to be able to write are criticisms, did I mostly enjoy the book? I guess the house. Tyrrel's story has a wonderful sense of place, and the process of seeing Stacy build a new life in the Sierras, just as she rebuilds and restores the house, is immensely satisfying. And the whole mystery of what can be going on, why someone wants Stacy gone and how they imagine they might benefit from it, was very intriguing. The actual ending wasn't perfect, but it did explain things well.

I already have Tyrrel's second book, On Winding Hill Road, in my TBR, and it sounds pretty good as well.


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