Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

REVIEW: The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson

Dear Ms. Lawrenson,

I happened to read a review of this, your debut novel, in People a month or so ago. I was intrigued by the description of the novel as an homage to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Imagine my surprise when, the very next day, while sifting through my big drawer o’ books Jane has sent me, I found a copy of The Lantern. Isn’t it nice when life works out like that?

I settled down to read and immediately ran into a problem – the prose. The first chapter begins:

The rocks glow red above the sea, embers of the day’s heat below our balcony at the Hotel Marie.

Down here, on the southern rim of the country, out of the mistral’s slipstream, the evening drops like viscous liquid: slow and heavy and silent. When we first arrived, the stifling sultriness made sleep impossible; night closed in like the lid of a tomb.

The Lantern	Deborah LawrensonNow, some might call the above lyrical, evocative, lush. I call it overwritten. After ten pages without let-up, I was concerned that I would be able to get through the book (I am a delicate fainting flower of sensitivity when it come to prose).

Then something happened – something that probably only happens to me about 20% of the time with prose that is, shall we say, challenging: I got into it. I’m not sure, when this happens, how much of it is the prose itself (do I think I don’t like it but on some level I actually do?) and how much is it that the story has drawn me in and forced me to call a truce with the prose. I would guess that with The Lantern it’s a combination of the two: the story definitely did draw me in, even if it took a little while, and the prose, while subjectively too rich and detailed, fit the mood of the tale really well. Plus, overwritten is not the same thing as badly written in my mind, at least not in and of itself. It’s something I find that I can adjust to and immerse myself in to the degree that a negative can become a positive.

So, the story: there are actually two stories being told in The Lantern, in more or less alternating chapters. The modern-day story is told in the first person by a female narrator who remains unnamed throughout the book (our first nod to Rebecca). At the time of the viscous evenings at the Hotel Marie in the south of France, some unidentified calamity has already occurred, exiling our narrator and her lover, Dom, from their recently purchased property in Provence,  Les Genévriers. The narrator (Dom calls her Eve, a rather heavy-handed pet name, I thought; I will refer to her that way because I’m already sick of typing “narrator”) then goes back and describes in broad strokes her first meeting with Dom in a maze on the shores of Lake Geneva, and how they came together. She describes herself as an American, but seems to be a bit of a mutt, the daughter of an American father and a French/English mother, raised in France, England and the U.S., but now based in London and working as a translator. Dom is English as well; independently wealthy as a result of a business he started after college and cashed out on, he now composes music. Dom and Eve drift together, seemingly at the mercy of a strong but oddly lugubrious attraction. After a relatively short period, at Dom’s instigation, they give up their London lives and move into the ramshackle Les Genévriers to begin their life together in isolated bliss.

But every Eden has its snake, and there are several candidates at Les Genévriers. There’s Dom’s strong negative reaction to any mention of his former wife, Rachel. There’s Sabine, a local who knows Dom (though he claims not to have met her) and who knew Rachel; she manipulates Eve for her own mysterious reasons. There are the ominous news reports of local girls gone missing. And there is Les Genévriers itself, damaged and perhaps corrupted, even haunted. Soon Eve and Dom find their idyll less than idyllic, though both are maddeningly reluctant to acknowledge it.

The second story is of an earlier occupier of Les Genévriers, Bénédicte Lincel, who grew up there and lived her entire adult life in the house. When she begins to tell her story, she is an old woman, living alone and beset by what she believes are ghosts. The first ghost she sees is of her brother Pierre, a Bad Seed-type character who tormented her throughout her youth. Later, Pierre’s ghost is joined by that of Bénédicte’s older sister Marthe, a blind perfumer who abruptly and mysteriously cut off all contact with Bénédicte years before. Bénédicte goes on to relate the story of her youth with Marthe, Pierre and their parents, earning a somewhat hardscrabble subsistence from Les Genévriers.

A word on the Rebecca comparison: I’ve never read the book. I’ve seen the Joan Fontaine/Laurence Olivier movie, in whole or in part, probably half a dozen times. It’s a compelling story, but not necessarily an emotionally involving one. Fontaine’s unnamed narrator is so annoyingly mousy I often want to smack her during the course of the film, and Olivier’s Max is too forbiddingly brooding and mysterious for most of the movie to hold much appeal. The most interesting character, besides the fanatical and menacing Mrs. Danvers, is the never seen Rebecca, who seems to obsess each of the characters in a different way.

Rachel isn’t quite as fascinating in The Lantern, but she does compel in a way that Eve and Dom don’t. Part of the problem is simply the strictures of gothic literature; it’s far from my favorite subgenre. Gothic romance (though I would not call The Lantern a romance, the romantic relationship between Dom and Eve is central to its gothicness) requires the heroine to be passive and in denial and to kind of…dither in an annoying way. Which Eve does in spades. It requires Dom to be opaque, and the real nature of the romantic connection to be hard to understand. From my (admittedly limited) experience with gothics, a lot of the appeal is in the payoff. In that sense, The Lantern disappoints somewhat. The buildup really suggested to me that the two stories would tie together in some grand way, but without saying too much, the resolutions of Bénédicte’s story and Eve and Dom’s story remain on separate tracks, only tangentially tied together, and neither entirely satisfied me. Dom’s secret is disappointingly derivative; not quite a literal call-back to Rebecca, but close enough. Bénédicte’s ghostly visions do have a sort of interesting resolution, but she is required to be breathtakingly stupid (or deliberately blind; more on that in a moment) for quite a while about certain obvious realities. The resolution of the subplot about the missing girls was particularly disappointing and anti-climatic.

Blindness is an interesting running theme in The Lantern. There is Marthe’s literal blindness, and the Lincel family’s apparent figurative blindness to the extent of Pierre’s sadism and evil. Eve herself indulges in quite a bit of emotional blindness in regards to Dom, Rachel and the potential reality she fears. So many characters in denial doesn’t necessarily make for the most satisfying reading – even when Eve begins to dig to find the truth about Rachel she does so secretly, keeping her actions from Dom. In some ways their relationship is realistic in its behaviors if not the somewhat melodramatic particulars, but again, that doesn’t make it dramatically interesting or satisfying. Though to be fair, and precise, it wasn’t so much that I found Eve’s creeping around the truth and Dom’s withdrawal boring so much as I found it irritating. Neither emerged as a very sympathetic figure.

The Lantern, like many gothics, contains mild supernatural elements, most of which end up having fairly prosaic explanations. As a reader, that’s actually my preference, but others may be disappointed, I suppose.

I just realized that it’s happened again: I’ve managed to write over 1,000 words and make it sound like I really didn’t like a book that I actually did enjoy. The flaws are just more interesting to discuss than the pleasures with certain books, for some reason. But The Lantern definitely has its rewards: as I mentioned early on, I really did get into the book after probably the first 20 or 30 pages, and pretty much devoured it from that point. The alternating storylines added to the suspense. I wouldn’t say that felt too emotionally involved with the story (and that’s always at least one of my goals when reading fiction), but it did stay with me afterward. These days, that’s an accomplishment (I need to write a review of the book I read after The Lantern, and at the moment I can’t remember a single thing about it).

Even if I found some of the resolutions disappointing, I can’t help but give a good grade to a book that entertained me this much. Also, I was serious about the prose – it bothered me at first but once I got immersed in the world of the book it actually really worked quite well for me, and also added to the creepy, dread-y atmosphere I associate with gothic novels. My grade for The Lantern is a B+.

Best regards,

Jennie 

Goodreads | Amazon | BN | nook | Sony | Kobo

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

21 Comments

  1. Darlynne
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 14:56:04

    For my money, Rebecca had the best ever opening line.

    I’ve never thought of Rebecca as romantic per se, primarily because the narrator is so hopelessly spineless and Max DeWinter is boorish and barely civil. And yet, I loved the book, which is a tribute to Ms. DuMaurier’s writing and the atmosphere she created.

    Maybe we’re in the same boat. I will have to give The Lantern a try. Thanks for another thoughtful review.

    ReplyReply

  2. Susan Laura
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 15:17:47

    Thanks, Jennie. I think without reading your thoughts I, too, would have been overwhelmed by the prose and would have just given up on this book. Now I will put it on my list!

    ReplyReply

  3. JMM
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 17:06:38

    I was torn about buying this on a limited budget, but I found it in the used book store. I haven’t had time to read more than the first pages, but I’m hoping that I’ll get into it when I have the time. It is a bit… “lush”. I usually prefer more spare prose.

    ReplyReply

  4. Jennie
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 17:48:48

    @Darlynne: I think the only reason I even associate Rebecca with romance is that so many romances have copied the (now trite, but still kind of satisfying) gimmick of “I thought he loved HER, but all along it was ME he loved! He HATES her!” And I wouldn’t be surprised (again, not having read the book) if some romance heroes weren’t partly modeled on Max, since he’s so tortured and gruff and stuff.

    Do let me know (also Susan Laura and JMM) what you think if you read it! I also generally prefer spare prose, but a lot of my objection to overwritten prose is that it just makes it hard to read very quickly; I get lost in all the adjectives and similes. That wasn’t with this book – once I got into the story it was a very quick read for me.

    ReplyReply

  5. peggy h
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 19:40:46

    Thanks, Jennie.

    This has been on my wish list for a while, having read a (very) short review online some time ago, which also evoked the Rebecca comparison.

    I’ve read and re-read Rebecca many times, and have watched the Olivier/Fontaine version (which, IIRC, changed an aspect of the ending from the book) and two TV mini-series (the actress playing the second Mrs. de Winter in the later one was the real-life daughter of the actress who played the same character in the first–small bit of trivia interesting probably only to me!)

    I think I’ll hold off buying this for a while, but will keep it in my wishlist. I’m not ready to drop $12.99 (pretty much only buying ebooks nowadays) but may reconsider when/if the price goes down! Thank you!

    ReplyReply

  6. willaful
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 19:41:43

    It sounds like there are more nods to du Maurier than just Rebecca. I’m curious to read it and see how many I recognize.

    ReplyReply

  7. Lazaraspaste
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 20:29:40

    Hey Jennie,

    Great review! I definitely think you are right that gothics often rely to heavily on dithering or blind heroines, but I think that’s just lazy mystery writing, IMHO. The really good gothics don’t let the heroines remain passive or blind. My favorite of the genre is Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart. The heroine is much more active and her uncertainty stems from the fact she is in a strange situation, not because she needs not to see things in order to propel the plot forward.

    My general belief is that all gothics fall into three camps: those that resemble Rebecca, those that resemble Jane Eyre, and those that resemble The Castle of Oronto.

    ReplyReply

  8. Jennie
    Sep 23, 2011 @ 00:12:06

    @Lazaraspaste: You may be right; I’ve only read Jane Eyre – what would you say the differences are between the three styles? IIRC, I’ve heard The Castle of Oronto is VERY melodramatic – it seems to be the book that romance heroines who are given to flights of fancy are always reading.

    ReplyReply

  9. Marguerite Kaye
    Sep 23, 2011 @ 00:45:11

    I rarely go straight out and buy a book after a review, but I’ve just ordered this one. I recently re-read Rebecca again, and though I found the narrator as irritating as ever, there’s something about the story that just grabs me. Cousin Rachel, IMHO, is another great Du Maurier gothic and also the much under-read House on the Strand. I thought Castle Otranto totally OTT but that’s what it was meant to be – like The Monk, but Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which has a real pop at the genre, is still a fave.
    Thank you for the really thoughtful review, I’m looking forward to discovering a new author.

    ReplyReply

  10. Julie
    Sep 23, 2011 @ 01:02:49

    I love Gothics and cut my romance reading teeth on Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt.I am always on the lookout for new writers and this looks right up my street.

    ReplyReply

  11. SAO
    Sep 23, 2011 @ 02:26:27

    My first reaction was a paranormal featuring a volcano:

    “The rocks glow red above the sea, embers of the day’s heat below our balcony at the Hotel Marie.”

    I’ve never seen rocks glowing red in the sunset. I don’t mind purple prose, but I really dislike it when I’m confused a result.

    ReplyReply

  12. Rosario
    Sep 23, 2011 @ 08:34:00

    I just realized that it’s happened again: I’ve managed to write over 1,000 words and make it sound like I really didn’t like a book that I actually did enjoy.

    LOL! I did exactly the same thing. Paragraph after paragraph about how frustrated I felt about Dom and Eve’s lack of communication and how both made exactly the worst possible choices. I was also particularly annoyed at how irrelevant Benedicte’s story was to Eve’s (when an author uses this type of structure, I expect the stories to somehow mirror or illuminate each other). I did like the resolution to the issue of the missing girls, though. I didn’t see it coming, and I found it refreshing.

    ReplyReply

  13. Deborah Lawrenson
    Sep 23, 2011 @ 12:24:51

    Dear Reviewer (Jennie),

    First of all, thank you for reviewing my novel, and for taking so much time and so many words over it – much appreciated! Although authors love to hear good things about their work, it is a review that addresses the flaws that is often the most interesting and useful for all (including the author!).

    I always take the view that the magic of reading is in the way we all react individually to any book. If we all loved every aspect of every book there would be no delight in finding the ones that really speak to us.

    For what it’s worth, here’s how I saw the book when I was writing it. On a subtle level The Lantern is a novel about reading and stories and words. Is it too descriptive, using too many varied adjectives? Maybe, but the narrator Eve is a translator: words, and the precise choice of them, matter to her. The control of language, for her, means stability and rational understanding of her surroundings and situation when it seems she might otherwise be losing control.

    The Lantern is also about isolation. Eve and Dom insulate themselves from the modern world in their own dream cocoon. Bénédicte lives on alone at Les Genévriers, the young girl who has become an isolated old woman whom others call crazy. Marthe is isolated by her blindness. In such circumstances, small details become large. (The connection between the past and present is metaphoric rather than story-led.)

    At times when the characters seem detached from the reality – or the narrator is in denial – their state of mind or interpretation of a situation is mirrored in their descriptions of the landscape. In a very obvious example, Eve and Dom travel to Davos for a skiing trip, but Dom will not admit what is troubling him – while all around is the cold, hard white dazzle of a frozen world.

    I think that’s probably quite enough from me, but I would just like to give you a couple of links to reassure one of your commentators that red rocks do indeed glow on the south coast of France. Sometimes the unlikeliest things are true! These are from my blog.

    http://deborah-lawrenson.blogspot.com/2011/03/rocks-glow-red.html
    http://deborah-lawrenson.blogspot.com/2011/01/red-rocks-at-cassis.html

    With all good wishes,
    Deborah Lawrenson

    ReplyReply

  14. Jennie
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 00:35:33

    @Rosario: Yes, I think I would have preferred even just a bit more of a connection between Eve’s story and Bénédicte’s. I tend to be a fan of symmetry in stories and even if connecting them would’ve been a bit too “neat” I think I would’ve found it more emotionally satisfying.

    I will say (since I think I forgot to in the review) that Bénédicte was the most sympathetic character in the story for me, and I felt more of an emotional connection to her than to Eve or Dom. And I didn’t mind the resolution of either story; I just felt like they could’ve had more oomph and resonance.

    ReplyReply

  15. etv13
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 03:36:07

    @Lazaraspaste: Nine Coaches Waiting is exactly what came to my mind when I read that part of the review, too.

    @Darlynne: In my view, the opening line of Rebecca takes a back seat to both Scaramouche and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (And maybe A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick, too.)

    ReplyReply

  16. Jennie
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 23:56:06

    @Deborah Lawrenson: Thanks for the insight into the characters. I agree with this: “If we all loved every aspect of every book there would be no delight in finding the ones that really speak to us.”

    That speaks to my finding aspects of the book that I’m critical of but still finding it overall very worth reading. I was thinking about this the other day and was reminded that a lot of my favorite books are quite flawed, whereas there are “perfect” books that I like but don’t love.

    ReplyReply

  17. Janine
    Sep 25, 2011 @ 01:22:28

    @etv13: “Call me Ishmael” is a great opening line but my money goes to the Hebrew original of “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In Hebrew it’s more poetic and alliterative.

    ReplyReply

  18. Marguerite Kaye
    Oct 16, 2011 @ 05:29:52

    I read this after reading this review and I have to say that I really, really enjoyed it. On top of the parallel stories, which is one of my favourite things, and the parallels with Rebecca, one of my old favourite books, it was set in my favourite part of France and evoked lots of lovely memories.

    I tend to think that being so familiar with Rebecca gave the game away on some of the plot, but I don’t think this was a bad thing. The isolation, both mental and physical, the terror of asking questions you don’t want to hear answers to, and the very human tendency to put the worst possible explanation on a given set of circumstances had me hooked. I read it so quickly that I’m planning on going back to it again, but just wanted to say thank you Jennie, for pointing me at this book because I doubt I’d have found it myself.

    ReplyReply

  19. Jennie
    Oct 19, 2011 @ 19:18:00

    @Marguerite Kaye: Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. It’s really stuck with me more than some of the books I read more recently – I agree that the sense of isolation in the novel is really a powerful element.

    I was looking at your earlier comment about the narrator of Rebecca being annoying, and it crystallized for me again the fact that I have trouble being sure I like a book when I don’t really like the characters. Partly it’s because I rarely *do* like a book when I don’t like the characters. I didn’t really dislike them in this book, but I had enough issues with them that I think it clouds my memory of it. I was surprised to see that I’d given it a B+. I think it deserves that grade but I thought I’d felt more negatively about it initially.

    ReplyReply

  20. Marguerite Kaye
    Oct 20, 2011 @ 03:21:13

    Jennie, in general I agree with you, if I don’t like the characters I don’t care what happens to them. In this case, and in Rebecca, it was the absent wife who I found compelling, despite the fact in both cases that she was a total horror (not sure what that says about me!). I didn’t actually care much about the narrator, and I didn’t particularly feel that she deserved her HEA, but what I loved and admired was the author’s ability to keep me hooked despite this. Had it been a ‘straight’ romance though, that’s another story.

    I know I said it above, but I hardly ever go out and buy a book straight after reading a review, but I’m really glad I did in this case. Thank you.

    ReplyReply

  21. Ghislaine
    Apr 22, 2013 @ 11:23:05

    I live in the same area as the author, and found her descriptions of life here spot on. Despite its soft touristy image, this part of Provence is a harsh region with its extremes of heat and cold and icy howling winds and with a harsh history. My stone house backs on to the Plague Wall and hidden monasteries and hideouts of the Resistance. There are ghosts in the very rocks. So I enjoyed the yarn, but romance? Give me the ghosts any time. As a result I am just starting on The Art of Falling.

    ReplyReply

Leave a Reply


+ 1 = 9

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

%d bloggers like this: