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The Lantern: A Novel

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Tags: Books
Genre: Romance
Publisher: Harper
1 review about The Lantern: A Novel

The "Huh?" Factor: SPOILERS!

  • Aug 11, 2011
In her debut novel, "The Lantern," Deborah Lawrenson tries too hard to be Daphne Du Maurier. One of her main characters is called "Eve" by her lover, Dom, but the reader never learns her actual name. Sound familiar? The mere existence of Dom's first and estranged wife Rachel hovers like a wraith over the couple's relationship, seemingly stagnating its growth to the point of no return where the psychologically frustrated Eve regards Rachel as the "one" woman Dom can never forget or replace. Suspicions evolve into arguments that spread like mold in damp weather and Lawrenson employs familiar scenes and situations from Writing Gothic Fiction 101--the twosome arguing on a dangerous cliff, a showdown where Eve implores Dom to admit he has never loved anyone as he has loved Rachel, moody interludes where depressed Dom retreats to mournful places of shadowy solitude, and the growing speculation that the disappearances of young women in the province where they live may be due to some action born of Dom's dark state of mind. As with all such "Rebecca" clones the increasing paranoia of Eve is egged on by the spiteful Miss Danvers figure. In this case, Eve is urged by her own obsession and by the malicious curiosity of another to explore Rachel's actions before her breakup with Dom. Most of all, in emulating du Maurier's dark classic, Lawrenson constructs the perfect locale that gleams in its own lush setting with Manderley's formidability. Juxtaposing the dark melancholy with the light and airy Provencal farm disguises the place's past in the same way that Manderley's beauty cloaked the battle of wills enclosed within its walls.

Now all this may sound as if all the proper variables are in place to balance the perfect equation to craft the most spectacularly chilling and romantic Gothic tale. Not so.

Lawrenson chooses a clipped format where each chapter only runs a maximum of four pages. She interjects another narrator into the mix--that of Benedicte Lincel, a former, or is it current?, resident of Les Genevriers, the rustic farm nestled in the lush, idyllic lavender fields of Provence. Alternating the voice of Eve with the voice of Benedicte, she relates, respectively, the present story with the sad history of the Lincel farmstead from the early 30s on, of course, weaving an interlocking connection between them that will eventually shed light to the overall outcome. Unfortunately the abbreviated chapters give the story the thrust of short bursts with no long interludes that provide insight to either characters or remarkable situations that will be remembered as the most memorable Gothic moment of literature for 2011. If anything, the switching voices distract from the sense of discovery that the reader needs to gradually make. Surely, these two people are not just connected because one moved into the family homestead after the occupants were long gone. "The Lantern" fails to draw the reader sufficiently into the ambiance and the compelling "need to know" with the same insistence of Eve. When the nameless narrator of Rebecca realizes her folly in the scene with Maxim in the cottage, the reader feels every bit of her shock, experiencing it with her. Here, no such empathy binds the reader to the facts. It is, what it is, producing a bit of a "huh?" factor.

And that brings me to a good question: Is the form of Gothic literature as we know it--the brooding house, the isolation of old families with governesses, the skeleton-in-the-closet secret that in this day of parents without partners and open gay and lesbian relationships seems ho-hum as the basis of a scandalizing denouement--is the Gothic horror simply passé? Other modern writers have given it their personal and very successful spin--Susanna Kearsley (Winter Sea,Mariana, The Rose Garden) for one, fashions a good old fashioned Gothic with technologically savvy heroines and fairly up-to-date scenarios that seem right for the reader who wants contemporary Gothic Romance with a bit of the supernatural thrown in. But other than this notable writer, I cannot think of one other who isn't, in a sense, reinventing the wheel or rewriting "Rebecca." Obviously, Ms Kearsley understands the need to evolve and craft her work to incorporate new sensibilities and ideals of the current age.

Now that is not to say that Lawrensen is not an accomplished writer of prose--she is. However, placing a heroine in a beautiful surrounding and making that place a character itself in the novel does not a Mary Stewart make (Nine Coaches Waiting (Mary Stewart Modern Classic), Airs Above the Ground, This Rough Magic). When I first read the opening pages describing the scintillating perfume created by the blind Marthe Lincel with its Proustian ability to conjure up time and place, I reveled in what I imagined the scent to be and I wanted to run out and buy something so magical that it could trigger so many memories. I wondered how the perfume with its notes of heliotrope and hawthorn would factor into the story and turned the page with apt anticipation.

Ultimately, I was disappointed--the fragrance like its creator has little sillage, relegating the entire mystical opening of the novel to mere exposition. I wanted to smell that scent and feel a frisson of panic because I knew that fragrance like the mimosa perfume in Dorothy Macardle's novel "The Uninvited [VHS]" heralded the appearance of a could-be malevolent ghost and I was in for a treat.

The last few chapters provide a rather blasé explanation that eases the angst of at least one of the narrators. Lawrensen turns philosopher and cautions the reader to never connect the dots in the au courant conspiracy theory fashion where much is made of nothing, for "real life is not like that, to draw too much on the imagination when it is so often misleading" can only lead to danger. If only Lawrensen had pumped up the ghostly action! Why not an actual blood connection between the Lincels and Rachel that would have caused Eve to think the appearance of the lantern in the drive was meant to scare her away not by the benign and slighted Benedicte, but Rachel the avenging wife? Or maybe some family tie with Eve herself--"She looks like me--the woman." Lawrensen waits to reveal what she would like her readers to think is her supposedly scary tie-together in a two-page epilogue where Benedicte, as the lingering spirit of Les Genevriers, remarks upon the couple who are now the denizens of her old home--"I am pleased they have stayed. They are kind to each other . . . " and comments on her feelings of aloneness that keep her bound to the property. "I lit our lantern and set it on the path . . . I am waiting for you." Why not this action of setting the signal lantern on the path as the opening scene? Wouldn't that sense of longing permeate the entire book--why not the scent of the flame flickering in its container or the screech of the parrot--these would engage the senses and hint of Andre's existence? The perfume sounds wonderful, but, alas, it makes little sense. Then and only then would the reader connect immediately with that sense of being lost.

Likewise the modern story should follow this journey--with the modern character setting her own metaphorical lantern in a path of her own. Whether Dom responds or not is part of the story and when and if he does enables the reader to interact and share the couple's ultimate joy. Why not including in the last scene a roaring fireplace where the light of the lantern has extended to suggest the warmth of home and hearth? Beats the heck out of me.

Bottom line? Deborah Lawrensen's "The Lantern" assembles all the right ingredients for the quintessential Gothic tale. She has much to work with--exquisite prose that at times meanders away from the action but accurately and lovingly recreates the Provencal scene of fragrant lavender fields amidst bucolic loveliness, a heroine with little self-confidence in her ability to keep a man interested and a tortured hero whose angst is reminiscent of that of Maxim de Winter's. Add to this mix a ghost story, a series of could-be murders, disappearances and an ex-wife who might be "Rebecca" incarnate and you would think any reader would be in Gothic nirvana. Unfortunately, Lawrensen concentrates on slashing her storyline into short chapters that detract from its continuity and does little with all she has worked so hard to lay out before us. Ultimately, the entire novel needs something more that will deliver it from a lack of connection and empathy with the reader. Recommended for those who must read another "Rebecca" wannabe.
Diana Faillace Von Behren

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