26 July 2016

Review: The Things We Knew by Catherine West

Could have been excellent

Amazon Description

When their tragic past begins to resurface, can he help her remember the things she can’t?

After her mother’s death twelve years ago, Lynette Carlisle watched her close-knit family unravel. One by one, her four older siblings left their Nantucket home and never returned. All seem to blame their father for their mother’s death, but nobody will talk about that tragic day. And Lynette’s memory only speaks through nightmares.

Then Nicholas Cooper returns to Nantucket, bringing the past with him. Once Lynette’s adolescent crush, Nick knows more about her mother’s death than he lets on. The truth could tear apart his own family—and destroy his fragile friendship with Lynette, the woman he no longer thinks of as a kid sister.

As their father’s failing health and financial concerns bring the Carlisle siblings home, secrets surface that will either restore their shattered relationships or separate the siblings forever. But pulling up anchor on the past propels them into the perfect storm, powerful enough to make them question their faith, their willingness to forgive, and the very truth of all the things they thought they knew.

My Review

Lynette Carlise is the youngest of five siblings, and the only one still living at home . . . with her ailing father, and a house that is crumbling around her. She needs a loan to bring the house back to its former glory, or they'll have to sell. And for that, she needs her siblings.

Parts of the plot seemed contrived to me. The analytical side of me could see several options other than selling the property, and while it was logical that Lynette was too close to the situation to see other options, Nick the bank manager should have been able to offer some alternatives (like a reverse mortgage), as should her lawyer sister. However, as the story progressed, I could see the author needed a plot device to get all five Carlisle siblings back to Wyldewood, and the need to discuss the white elephant the house had become served as that device.

And it turned into an interesting plot, less about the fate of Wyldewood or Drake Carlisle’s possible Alzheimer’s or even Lynette’s relationship with Nick and more about secrets: secrets the characters knew they were keeping, and secrets they didn’t. The problem was that it took a long time for it to actually become clear that the characters were keeping secrets. At the beginning, it felt more like information was missing. I know that’s a subtle distinction, but it’s there.

How to explain it . . .

It’s one thing for a character to have secrets. Most good characters do. But with most good characters, the reader knows they have a secret, and often also knows what that secret is (for example, in a romance, the ‘secret’ is often that the heroine has feelings for the hero or vice versa). In other novels (say, in general fiction), the reader will know the character has a secret, but doesn’t immediately find out what that secret is. But we trust the author to show us the information at the right time, and we look for clues as to what that secret might be—because a good author will leave a trail of crumbs.

But if the character has a secret and don’t even know they have that secret, it feels like lying by omission, because we expect the characters to be honest with themselves (and, by proxy, honest with the reader) even if they can’t be honest with the other characters. Lynette had layers of secrets. Some, like the fact she paints and sells her work under a pseudonym, is a secret we know about, and that’s great because it provides ongoing tension—when will Nick and her family find out, and what will they say? Other secrets are more subtle but the breadcrumbs are there. This also provides ongoing tension and plot questions as I read and wonder whether the secret is what I think it is, and what’s going to happen.

But the secret which really bugged me was the one which didn’t get disclosed until almost the end, and even then it seemed to appear by accident (because one character made a mistake that sent a chain of events into action, which led to the big reveal of that character’s secret, which led to other characters revealing their secrets). Yes, I know the mistake was planned by the author, but it seemed out of character which made it seem contrived (hmm. Like the whole plot).

The reason this bothered me is it felt like Lynette had been keeping secrets from the reader because there were things she knew, things she’d done, that she (as the main viewpoint character) never let the reader see. To use a writing term, this made her feel like an unreliable narrator. I also think it took away from the tension, because the secret was actually a major plot point. I would have liked to have followed that part of her personal character arc, but was deprived of that.

The upshot of all these secrets was that the plot actually wasn’t about what I thought it was about. I thought it was about Lynette’s relationship with Nick, and about whether she and her siblings could keep the house. It was and it wasn’t. It was about both these things, but there was a bigger question, and one which, if approached differently, could have turned this from a so-so women’s fiction novel with romantic elements into something far better, a character-driven women’s fiction novel with romantic and suspense elements. But to say more would be a spoiler.

Overall, this was a solid novel. I think it could have been excellent, but there were too many undisclosed secrets and that didn’t work for me.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Catherine West at her website.

No comments:

Post a Comment