The Lantern, by Deborah Lawrenson

>> Wednesday, September 21, 2011

TITLE: The Lantern
AUTHOR: Deborah Lawrenson

PAGES: 344

SETTING: Contemporary Southern France
TYPE: Gothic romance

When Eve falls for the secretive, charming Dom, their whirlwind relationship leads them to purchase Les Genevriers, an abandoned house in a rural hamlet in the south of France. As the beautiful Provence summer turns to autumn, Eve finds it impossible to ignore the mysteries that haunt both her lover and the run-down old house, in particular the mysterious disappearance of his beautiful first wife, Rachel.

Whilst Eve tries to untangle the secrets surrounding Rachel's last recorded days, Les Genevriers itself seems to come alive. As strange events begin to occur with frightening regularity, Eve's voice becomes intertwined with that of Benedicte Lincel, a girl who lived in the house decades before. As the tangled skeins of the house's history begin to unravel, the tension grows between Dom and Eve. In a page-turning race, Eve must fight to discover the fates of both Benedicte and Rachel, before Les Genevriers' dark history has a chance to repeat itself.
Lazy day again, and the description above is pretty good, so I'm not going to bother with my own (this review is long enough, anyway!). Go ahead and read it, I'll wait.

Done? Well, if you read even that short summary, you problably don't need me to tell you that The Lantern owes much to Rebecca ( ). There's a whirlwind relationship with a man the heroine doesn't know all that much about before they marry (in this case, begin living together). There's the very distinctive house in an area unfamiliar to the heroine, where she doesn't have any sort of support network. There's the big mystery involving the first wife, something that's clearly still having an effect on the man. And once you start reading, the similarities keep piling up. We've got a heroine whose real name we never find out (Eve is just a nickname Dom has come up with). The action even starts with Eve and Dom in some sort of exile, with Eve making dire remarks about knowing that your man has done a bad, bad thing, and then goes back and tells the story that brought them there.

Similarities or not, this was not a problem for me. The author freely acknowledges the inspiration, and then makes the story completely her own, taking it in a completely different direction. It's an homage, rather than a rewriting. There's the story of the previous residents of the house, but not only that, the relationship between Eve and Dom is quite different. Plus, it helps that there is no Mrs. Danvers, I guess!

So all that said, how did the story work? The answer is that I kind of liked it, on the whole, but there's a big central issue that was very close to making the book a complete failure. It's the fact that the conflict in Eve and Dom's relationship is based on non-communication. You see, Dom refuses to say anything at all about his former wife, Rachel, and asks Eve not to ask him any questions about her. Eve accepts this, grudgingly, but then can't resist digging around for answers.

My main issue was that the whole thing went too far beyond what would be reasonable without any woman insisting that Dom explained himself. We therefore had a situation where I was thinking badly of both characters:

With Dom, I was thinking that I could imagine no possible secret that excused being so damned mysterious, especially when he had to be aware that the woman he supposedly loved felt the need to know. I mean, there's this scene when he just starts crying and then refuses to say why. After something like that, there are two options: a) your girlfriend doesn't give a shit about you, and therefore doesn't feel the need to know what's wrong, or b) your girlfriend loves you, and is therefore being torn apart by not understanding what's happening to you. Given that, Dom's insistence on keeping quiet seems cruel, because he knows a) is not the case. To be fair, when we finally find out what Dom's big secret was, it is properly traumatic, and something big enough that it seems credible it would have screwed up with Dom in a major way. Enough to justify his actions during the book? There was much disagreement about that during the book club discussion.

As for Eve, her behaviour also bothered me. She basically takes the worst possible option. She could have insisted Dom tell her the truth, especially when it became clear it was something that still had a huge effect on him. She could have agreed to trust him and not ask questions, as he requested, even if it hurt her to do so. What she does, instead, is to tell Dom she trusts him, but at the same time go behind his back and research his former wife. I can understand perfectly well her need to know, but that's the worst of both worlds.

Lawrenson takes this to the point where she was walking the line between me continuing reading and throwing the book against the wall. It was frustrating, but for me, Lawrenson didn't quite cross the line, and the rest of what I liked about the book just about compensated for it. Your mileage may vary, however.

Yet another problem was that, while I love books with storylines happening in the present day and in the past, the successful ones tend to be the ones where whatever happened in the past mirrors and illuminates in some way the current storyline. I didn't feel that really happened in The Lantern. Eve and Dom's story is interspersed with the story of Benedicte, an old lady who used to live in the same house, who tells the story of her family and their lives. There's some fascinating stuff there. Her sister, Marthe, is blind, and overcomes incredible odds to become one of the most celebrated perfumieres in the world. There's also a horrible, evil brother, Pierre, and their stories are suitably dramatic. I kind of wished as I was reading that we were focusing on Marthe, rather than the more boring Benedicte, but in all, it was all fascinating.

Problem was, the story of Benedicte and her family felt very disconnected to our narrator's. The only element they seemed to have in common was the fact that Eve and Dom are living in what used to be Benedicte's house. Plus, Eve never seems all that interesting in finding out what happened back then -she never even really cottons on that something interesting might have happened! Yes, she starts doing some research, but that feels very throwaway... oh, this was the childhood home of someone famous, I'll read up a bit on her". It didn't even feel like she was interested enough to write the book about it that she was supposed to be writing.

Looks like I'm in a bit of a bitchy day today. Paragraphs and paragraphs describing what was wrong with the book, but I actually did enjoy it. I was quite absorbed by the story and the characters. I cared about them and wanted to know what was going on. I love modern gothics, and that's what I got here, with the hint of hauntings going on. Benedicte is haunted by the people in her past, and by the thought that she could, should have prevented some of the tragedies that happened, while Eve is haunted by Dom's previous wife, and even possibly by the house's former inhabitants. It's always just a hint, never a proper plot point, but I liked it.

But the best thing about it was the writing, and how Lawrenson used it to create the setting and mood of the story. The descriptions were lyrical and quite beautiful, using all five senses. It's a fantastic setting, and not only could could I picture it perfectly, I could smell it. This was quite appropriate in a book where perfume is quite a large part of the story. There were a few times when the description slowed down the narrative a bit, but it was worth it for the beautiful images it created.

To finish, I want to mention what, in this book where hauntings have a prominent place, ended up haunting me. It might be a bit spoilerish, so I'll white it out.[[[Days after finishing this, I can't forget the young girl who comes with Marthe to Les Genevieres and therefore shares Marthe's tragic end. I hated that it felt like she was completely disregarded. I found her fate the most tragic of all, for some reason. I couldn't stop thinking about this young girl, partially sighted at a time when it would have been even more of a struggle than it is today, who's managed to get to a point where the possibility of a career seems to open up before her. How proud and happy she must have been about it! And then, when doing something that must have seemed to her just completely unremarkable and not at all dangerous, accompanying her mentor to her childhood home, she's suddenly raped and killed. And for the author narrating the story, she merits nothing more than a passing reference. Maybe I'm being unfair, and the reaction I had was exactly what the author was after, but it really didn't feel that way.]]]



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