The Lantern (2011) by Deborah Lawrenson
Like so many of these modern gothic suspense novels, The Lantern has a split narrative and two narrators. In the present day, we have a naive young woman, known only by her nickname Eve; she leaves behind her life in London after a whirlwind affair with an older man, the enigmatic Dom, who whisks her away to a tumbledown Provence farmhouse named Les Genévriers. In a plot clearly modelled on that of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (there's even a direct reference to Rebecca thrown in, just in case anyone's missed the blatant parallels), Eve becomes increasingly obsessed with uncovering the truth about Dom's first wife, Rachel - a subject he refuses to discuss. The second narrator is Bénédicte, also an inhabitant of Les Genévriers, albeit some years before Eve and Dom's arrival. An elderly woman who has lived in the house her whole life, she believes she is close to death, and is being visited by the spirits of her ancestors and siblings. Her chapters alternate between these 'hauntings' and Bénédicte's recollections of her childhood and later life. The two timelines come together when Eve, searching for a project to keep herself occupied, begins to research the life of Marthe Lincel, a blind perfumier from the local region who disappeared without a trace at the height of her success - and who was also Bénédicte's sister.
The book has numerous flaws. Eve is, for want of a better word, rather wet - by the halfway point of the book, I'd lost count of how many times she'd wimped out of actually asking Dom about something or had willingly accepted a one-sentence answer and left it at that (despite the fact that she spends the majority of her time pondering all the things he hasn't told her). You start to lose sympathy for her after this happens for the tenth time, and it's a rather tiresome way of setting up what is obviously bound to be a revelatory outburst from Dom. The characters lack depth, and almost all of them could do with a bit of fleshing out; in portraying Dom as a vague, ambiguous character who could be either good or bad, the author makes it difficult to care about what becomes of the protagonists' relationship either way. The description is frequently over-the-top in its enthusiastic depiction of the French countryside, and left me feeling like I'd overdosed on flowers.
So the plot isn't remotely original (the similarities to Rebecca make it pretty easy to work out what the key to the mystery surrounding Rachel is going to be...), the modern protagonists are irritating, and the prose is unncessarily florid. Why, then, am I giving it a positive review; why would I classify this as a book I liked? Well, as much as I found fault with it, I simply loved reading it. It grabbed my attention and wouldn't let go, and I raced through it, constantly desperate to know what would happen next. The levels of suspense were extraordinary given that the characters didn't particularly inspire enormous amounts of sympathy. And all the hyperbole at least meant all the settings were rendered in beautifully vivid style. I'm in two minds as to whether to classify this book as a 'guilty pleasure'; it's not really something I'd be embarrassed to admit I liked, but I do think it's fair to say that the amount I enjoyed it was out of proportion to how technically 'good' I thought it was.
The Lantern is evidence that a book can be completely derivative and still extremely enjoyable. Apart from the many allusions to Rebecca, the narrative style and structure will be familiar to anyone who habitually reads fiction of this genre: see also Kate Morton, Kate Mosse, Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. Lawrenson (or, rather, her publisher) is obviously hoping this similarity will translate into comparable success, as evidenced by the fact of this being the author's first book to be published in the US. It deserves to sell just as well as its contemporaries, and it makes the perfect read for a lazy day - absorbing, tense and full of lush descriptive language. Lightweight (as befits my Month of Lightweight Books), but rather lovely.
NB: This isn't the only book I've read since I last posted; in fact, there's been quite a few - I just haven't had time to keep up to writing about them, or indeed anything else, here... Old habits die hard. I'm going to do a round-up post soon!