If I find an author I like, and can’t wait for the next book – I look for the last book.
Sarah Blake has only written two novels – 10 years apart. Better known for The Postmistress, her 2010 success, Blake’s first novel Grange House is more Victorian Gothic romance, channeling Brontë with references toJane Eyre, ghosts in the attic, drowning lovers, and a mysterious character who drives the story.
The summer at Grange House in the late 1890s becomes the turning point in seventeen-year-old Maisie’s life. Blake convincingly uses the manners and the language of that time to create what appears, at first, to be a summer idyll in Maine, with walks in the woods, ocean views, and a young girl spending the summer with her family.
Determined not to be “directed straight into marriage,” Maisie resists her parents’ plotting; other possibilities tempt her. The mysterious Miss Grange teases Maisie with stories that are “not fiction – not true,” and challenges her to abandon convention and write her own life story. Miss Grange, spinster and author, who lives on the top floor of the old hotel, holds secrets about Maisie, her father, and her heritage that threaten to change her world.
Up to this point Blake cleverly integrates mysterious characters and sustains the intrigue by never revealing all. Who really were those lovers who drowned? Who is buried in the lone grave? Why does Maisie’s mother change her mind from protecting her daughter from a likely husband? What ghosts roam about? What will happen next?
Hoping to be a writer like her role model, Maisie starts a correspondence with Miss Grange when the summer ends. The diaries are a window into the secrets, but when Miss Grange reenters the story with her diaries in “Volume II,” the stories within the stories, and Blake’s long tangential pages on the philosophy of writing that had no apparent connection to the action are frustrating distractions from the plot…
“When I sit down to write, at first it is as though I am descending downward through the fleecy coverings in my head, and down I go, down I go, all the while staring out the window, in the attitude of someone at study, my pen in my hand. And the soft procession of my thoughts float past me as I fall, until I am suddenly stuck upon one that will not fall past, something solid, a voice perhaps or a scrap of conversation I do not know the beginning of, or the end. And then I take up my pen and I begin to listen.”
Blake returns to her story with more revelations in “Volume III,” and recaptures the pace. Suddenly, the action speeds up with Maisie refocusing on the mysteries and reexamining her power in determining her own future. Of course, the handsome knave who professes his love helps, but all is not what it seems, and Blake turns the narrative again, keeping the reader off balance.
The ending is a surprise. Be sure to note the date.
Grange House is a “delicious read,” full of nuances and mystery – a book to be read by the fire or on the beach, forgetting the rest of world.
If you like Brontë, you won’t be disappointed in Blake’s book – her first.