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.
Now, 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+.