Word around here is that this is based on a true story. It’s the kind of book people ask for without knowing the author or the title, and as librarians we can only find it through word of mouth, because there is no concrete distinguishing characteristic that would tell anyone there’s a local connection. So after finding it once, forgetting it, then needing to find it again two years later, I figured I should read it myself & see what all the fuss is about.
As a novel, it’s not great but not terrible either—routine psychological suspense, where there’s a sordid family secret that’s revealed bit by bit. As the narrator struggles to remember/reconstruct what happened, you’re driven to keep reading to find out what exactly it was–but to me that feels like fake suspense, because you know it’s going to be something horrible even if you’re not sure exactly what the details will be (the genre is not my cup of tea, personally). The reconstruction comes in chunks as Richard, the narrator, interacts with his sister who’s killed her husband (because in a breakdown she thought he was her dad), the sister’s lawyer, other siblings, and a love interest. It’s well-paced and decently-written, although the dialogue is a little stilted and the procedural parts don’t ring particularly true (the lawyer is a heck of a lot more like a psychologist).
Knowing that it’s supposedly based on real events makes it worse in two ways. First, of course, it’s tragic and upsetting (whether or not the event actually happened—it feels like “recovered memory”). Secondly, I have mixed feelings about the roman-a-clef aspect (which of course is what prompted me to read the book in the first place).
If you know a fictional book has a real-life basis, naturally you’re constantly looking for the details that match up to real places/people/things. Summers’ veneer of disguise is ridiculous: “Pallstead” for Hallstead, “Cranklin Hill” for Franklin Hill. Other match-ups are a little looser: the childhood farm is supposedly in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Maryland, whereas we’re in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania (but the location of the real farm is in the Blue Ridge school district); “Blueberry,” the county seat, must be Montrose (Susquehanna County seat) because of the library’s Blueberry Festival (since I often wear the Newberry the Blueberry costume and am in charge of publicity for the Festival, that gave me a particular thrill!); Waterton is presumably Binghamton. There’s a real Steam Hollow Road, so maybe she didn’t even bother to disguise that. And she refers to the farm’s tiger lilies—they could be clever stand-ins for the daylilies that grow everywhere, but are more likely just wrongly identified.
It’s enjoyable to look for what can be identified, but ultimately I think it distracts from the narrative. Of course, since most people who read this book have no connection to the area, this isn’t a relevant criticism for most potential readers!