Four stars, read in August 2016.
Spoiler warning, as this was a review I couldn’t write without them. The first and last paragraphs are safe; everything else mentions specific details.
Maybe it’s the fact that this is a debut novel. I’ve read so many brilliant ones, and I really did love this, too. But maybe that’s what explains how many things just felt off to me, and how mixed my feelings are upon finishing. I loved it, I was completely absorbed, and I didn’t want it to end. There were also so many things I just hated.
More than once, I noticed awkward things like a phrase reused only a page or two after the first instance, making the writing sound slightly unsophisticated. I ignored that at first, for some reason thinking it was just in my head (maybe because I was listening to audio rather than seeing it on the page). But looking back now that I’ve finished, I see other things, too. Toward the end, for example, there’s that weird stretch where brand names suddenly pop up, jarring because of their total irrelevance. Jon’s Ray-Bans, Lucian’s Prada suit, Amber’s Chanel lipstick. Money has been a vague theme throughout, but only in the adult Altons’ dynastic British obsession with keeping Black Rabbit Hall. Is the random name-dropping meant to comfort us that everyone’s rich now, so Black Rabbit Hall is safe?
[The real spoilers start here.]
Mostly, I had such a hard time with Lorna’s entire storyline. For the first three-quarters of the book, it was agony every time the narrative switched back to her, because oh my god why would I care about something as trivial as wedding plans when I could be hearing more of Amber’s story? Even when the focus switched to the adoption, why was it so hard for me to care? Why did I feel like the level of drama was completely unwarranted? Why was a woman in her thirties acting like such a child, apparently never even considering her birth mother may have given her up under duress, having assumed all this time that she just didn’t feel like keeping her??
It didn’t help that I hated her relationship with Jon from the beginning, because of course he’s the solid, stable one, and she’s the flighty melodramatic one. Of course he’s from the perfect happy family, and she’s the one with damage. Of course she wants to torpedo their relationship because she thinks Jon will deem her an unsuitable mother on the basis of her being adopted. I mean . . . Is Eve Chase an actual human woman? This sounds like the kind of crap men write when the only knowledge they have of women is what other men have written about them. Jon is possessive and controlling, and he basically gaslights Lorna the entire fucking time. Of course that’s beautiful and romantic. Of course.
Anyway, god, I wish this book could’ve just been about Amber and her family. That was the compelling story, the one I absolutely melted into and didn’t want to leave. Though even there, it was unnecessarily agonizing, suffering from a severe lack of subtlety in particular areas. Caroline’s the worst of it, such a two-dimensional cartoon villain. I mean, she is actually the stepmother from Cinderella—brutally erasing all signs of her predecessor, hating her husband’s daughter for looking like the dead mother, chopping off Amber’s hair and making her wear prudish brown dresses so she’ll be less pretty. I’m not kidding, there’s a scene where she locks Amber in the “small, monastic room at the top of the tower,” just like in the movie. She’s inexplicably cruel, the transparently evil stepmother who directly causes the entire family’s destruction. Except that’s bullshit, because if anyone is the villain, it’s Hugo. Amber recognizes, for at least one sentence, that all of this is actually her father’s fault. But the book blames Caroline, and Hugo is only ever in the background. It’s pretty sexist, actually. And it’s just bad writing.
So, here we are. I only finished the book an hour ago, and I’m still tangled up in the emotions; I’m interested to see what shape my feelings will take over the next few days. The funny thing is that I would still absolutely recommend it, at least for now. The description that made it so intriguing to me, the comparison to Daphne duMaurier and Sarah Waters, is apt—not in the quality of writing, certainly, but in mood. It has that same atmosphere, and although I strongly dislike the way Chase handled certain elements, I have to appreciate her beautiful setting, the otherwise irresistible characters. Black Rabbit Hall is bittersweet, tragic, and totally captivating.