Review of Arrowood, by Laura McHugh


 A superb gothic. It will be hard to write a review & I am probably influenced by the setting because I have been so jealous of people who lived in ‘real’ places like Cornwall & Norfolk that I am so happy to have enjoyed a story set so close to my home. Simply setting a book in Iowa doesn’t work for me. Both Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead & Heather Gudenkauf’s The Weight of Silence tanked. But the architecture of old Mississippi River towns attracts me & so when I finished hearing the audible version of Arrowood I had to take a few hours of a bright Sunday afternoon to visit the site.


As you see, it was hardly @ all creepy & yet Laura McHugh chose an excellent setting. Like Manderley, the archetypical gothic house, Keokuk offers numerous old houses you’d both love to live in & be terrified of trying to pay to heat & maintain as a scarcely employable ex-grad student with a shrinking trust fund (even before finding some defalcations have been ongoing). I regret only that the author made the Arrowood family Catholics. Had they been Episcopalians the stunning St. John’s Episcopal Church could have been their home parish. She exaggerated the sense of decay Keokuk radiates, tho’ I enjoyed catching sight of the very same Sonic Drive-in Arden resorts to for lunch. (I also know well the truck stop in Waterloo she visits later.) Most depressing aren’t dilapidated houses abandoned to squatters (like the “sister house” on Orleans Ave. in the book) but lots on which are found contemporary suburban family dwellings – where in the last few decades some noble 19th-century mansion succumbed to the wrecking ball.


Arden, narrator & principal character, is both attractive & haunted, as a gothic heroine should be & we share her uncertainty whether the unsolved Iowa mysteries true crime writer will turn out to be a creep or a white knight. Given that Arden’s recently deceased estranged father had owned a water-ski tow speed-boat named The Ruby Slipper (!!!) it wasn’t hard to peg him (tho’ when you view the Keokuk Yacht Club you’ll not be surprised). Arden’s mother manages to be both totally believable & equally repulsive, now married to a sleazy evangelical pastor who oozes synthetic cheap grace. Add the seemingly friendly handy man who used to have a thing for Arden’s mother. Laura McHugh adroitly connects the secrets of several characters, including Arden herself, when the mystery of Arden’s missing sisters is finally revealed. She uses all the dramatis personae for more than red herrings, a sign of good plot construction. The story seems to drag a bit in the middle; as we move to the denouement it tightly engages the reader. I kept forming new hypotheses, only to meet another better twist.


The year’s not over yet, but we’ve already been so blessed with a superb British gothic in The Fire Child & now a fine American example of the genre.

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