Being somewhat new to the thriller genre, I want to say first that I realize I might not be this author’s ideal reader. Authors, of course, don’t really get to choose who their readers are, unless they publish and distribute their books themselves. Even though I was hopeful--I really wanted to like this book--I find myself disappointed. I found Isabella Moon through Laura Benedict’s blog, and she seems so nice, like someone you’d want to have in your circle of friends. All the time I was reading this and thinking about composing my thoughts, I wondered: if one of my friends wrote a book (actually, some of my friends are writing books) that I read and didn’t exactly like, would I tell him or her the truth? Well, yes.
Isabella Moon tells the story of a woman visited by the apparition of a young girl who has been missing for two years. Isabella Moon appears in Kate Russell’s dreams to tell her where she’s buried, information Kate takes to the town’s sheriff, an incident which kicks off a series of murders that reveal secrets hidden beneath the town’s quaint, friendly veneer. We meet a lot of characters and witness a lot of twists and turns.
I suppose that’s my main problem with the book: it never focused on any one thing long enough for me to feel invested. It seems at the beginning like this will be Kate’s story, that she has some connection with the girl, either real or psychic. Most of the first half of the book does focus on her, unfortunately in flashback. I say unfortunately because these flashbacks, which tell the backstory of Kate’s relationship with her abusive husband Miles, detract from the present story. They’re too long, and instead of making us understand her better, they serve to make her seem like a stock character, and sort of an aimless, empty-headed one at that. We never get a real sense of what keeps her with Miles--the money? Her desire for stability? She doesn’t come across as insecure so much as apathetic, which makes her come across as flat. Of course, the abuse is terrible, but beyond not wanting to see her suffer, she’s hard to care about.
Another thing that bothers me about the flashbacks--they’re in italics. To authors and editors everywhere: please learn to write (or edit) solid transitions between the past and present, and assume your readers are intelligent enough to follow along with you. Plenty of writers have done this quite successfully. Also, if you must use italics to show us when you’re going into the past or into the head of one character, don’t suddenly start using the same technique for other characters. About two-thirds of the way through the book, Benedict gives Miles a flashback chapter, and then she goes on and gives other characters flashback chapters. I was left wondering, why the transition from Kate?
And speaking of that, the whole book transitions from Kate, but it’s unclear why, except for the fact that Benedict has placed all these other characters in the story, and she has to somehow wrap up everything that’s happening with them. Even though it does come back to Kate in the final chapter, we never get a sense of why Isabella Moon chose her to communicate with in the first place. In fact, Isabella Moon seems to be nothing more than a plot device (and a title). She appears only to a few characters, but why? And another character who dies also appears several times, but that’s never explored either. I’m not sure if Benedict had ideas about making this a paranormal thriller and then she got caught up elsewhere, or what.
The book also focuses on the relationship between Kate’s best friend Francie and her secret lover, Paxton Birkenshaw. Francie is black, from a decent family, and Paxton is white, from one of the town’s best families. Francie and Paxton themselves are dull characters (usual small Southern town racial tension, and they both like coke--not the drink), but their mothers are both interesting characters, and I wanted more of them and less of their children. Delving more into the town’s past--and less into Kate’s--would have made for a more interesting book. And one nitpicky thing: at one point, Kate, who’s from South Carolina, seems puzzled that the little Kentucky hamlet in which she lives has an area still called “Darktown” by some of the town elders. Nobody who lives or grew up in the South would bat an eye at that or need to have it explained. The vestiges of racism still exist all over the South. (I live in Georgia, by the way.) To say she looked offended, yes--but puzzled? Hardly.
I’m finding it hard to write a focused review about such an unfocused book, especially without either giving something away or having to go into detail about the various plotlines, which would make this post way too long.
The writing itself is okay. Looking for passages to quote, I tended to notice things that bothered my internal English teacher: lots of “wryly” and “idly,” lots of unnecessary intricate description, wordiness. The one sentence that bothered me more than any other in the book (seriously, I kept thinking about it): “His skin wore a healthy-looking tan and there were faint, whitish lines at this temples where his sunglasses had been.” Skin does not “wear” a tan. Skin is tanned. It’s a process that occurs that changes the skin--not something that one puts on and takes off. Grr. I know I sound like a picky bitch, but I hate when writing detracts from the story, when I feel like I want to get out a pencil and start marking things up. (I have a friend whose mother actually does this, by the way.) I know many people don't notice this sort of thing. I've been in a book club for five years, and not once have we discussed the language in a story. (I tried, and I gave up.)
Honestly, I don’t mean to pick on Laura Benedict too much. After all, this is her first novel, and as I said in my post about Goldengrove, writing is difficult, and I think writing a mystery is doubly so. The author must keep the reader guessing--and Benedict did this pretty successfully--and that’s not easy. This book had great potential, and I still would like to read her latest book, Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts (although if she reads this, she may write and ask me not to, or at least to keep my mouth shut). I feel here like she must have had a book with so much going on, she and her editor ended up doing the best they could. Then again, as I said at the beginning, I’m not the target audience, not a person who usually reads thrillers, so the fault could be mine. I may be too blind to the conventions, or simply not understand what the audience wants.
*image from powells.com