Book Review: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein
May 25, 2015
When a boy tries to save his parents’ marriage, he uncovers a legacy of family secrets in a coming-of-age ghost story by the author of the internationally bestselling phenomenon, The Art of Racing in the Rain.
In the summer of 1990, fourteen-year-old Trevor Riddell gets his first glimpse of Riddell House. Built from the spoils of a massive timber fortune, the legendary family mansion is constructed of giant, whole trees, and is set on a huge estate overlooking Puget Sound. Trevor’s bankrupt parents have begun a trial separation, and his father, Jones Riddell, has brought Trevor to Riddell House with a goal: to join forces with his sister, Serena, dispatch Grandpa Samuel—who is flickering in and out of dementia—to a graduated living facility, sell off the house and property for development into “tract housing for millionaires,” divide up the profits, and live happily ever after.
But Trevor soon discovers there’s someone else living in Riddell House: a ghost with an agenda of his own. For while the land holds tremendous value, it is also burdened by the final wishes of the family patriarch, Elijah, who mandated it be allowed to return to untamed forestland as a penance for the millions of trees harvested over the decades by the Riddell Timber company. The ghost will not rest until Elijah’s wish is fulfilled, and Trevor’s willingness to face the past holds the key to his family’s future.
A Sudden Light is a rich, atmospheric work that is at once a multigenerational family saga, a historical novel, a ghost story, and the story of a contemporary family’s struggle to connect with each other. A tribute to the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, it reflects Garth Stein’s outsized capacity for empathy and keen understanding of human motivation, and his rare ability to see the unseen: the universal threads that connect us all.
Ever since I read The Art of Racing in the Rain for my book club, I have been a huge Garth Stein fan. Most recently I said that he was one of the 10 Authors that I Have to Meet! A Sudden Light has been out for a little while, and I was excited to finally get my hands on it at the library. Here’s what I’m thinking:
- I always love Stein’s writing. He draws you in with the language he uses to describe things.
- I adore the setting. Stein always sets his novels in the Pacific Northwest, and it is an area I am fond of. The particular setting of Riddell House was perfect – great expanses of open land and forest, a peaceful setting, a place to get away from it all. I would love to spend some time there myself (well maybe not in the actual house itself which was creepy).
- I loved the character of Trevor, particularly his love for his family and his quest to do the right thing, even if it goes against his deepest desires.
- I did like the suspense created as you wait to discover what will happen to the mighty estate.
- I felt like some of the history of the characters was a little extraneous – it didn’t ultimately contribute significantly to the overall plot line. Some background information could have been provided without confusing the reader with the whole family tree.
- I struggled with the development of some of the characters, particularly Serena and Jones. I wasn’t always clear on what their goals were or the people they were meant to be. It might have been done to create suspense, but I just found it to be a little disappointing.
- The pacing was a little off at times – there are times when you will be on the edge of your seat, and other times when the novel tends to drag a bit.
- I had a hard time buying into the paranormal aspect of this one – I have always enjoyed how Stein puts an unusual twist on everyday events, but this one pushed the envelope a bit much for me.
Overall, this wasn’t a bad read, but it was not my favorite novel by Stein. If you haven’t read any of his work yet, this would not be the one to start with.
What did you think of A Sudden Light? Are you a fan of Garth Stein?