Lost Souls of the Witches' Castle
Before I get to the review of this book, I have one thing to say: Isn’t Lost Souls of the Witches’ Castle a great title? Editors seem determined that romance novels should have the most forgettable titles possible. Teri DuLong’s book was published by a small press, which must be why she was allowed to have a title that actually catches the eye and makes you want to read the book. What a good idea.
Anyway. Dana Etheridge is an R.N. and a single mom, who one day experiences a mysterious urge to visit Danvers State Hospital, the Witches’ Castle of the title. It’s an abandoned psychiatric institution where, years before, she did her psych training. There, she meets a good-looking photojournalist named Nick DeSantis. Feeling an instant connection to him, she accepts when he asks her out. Nick is writing a book about Danvers, so Dana takes him to meet her grandmother, Hannah, who was a nurse at Danvers for 40 years. Hannah is herself propelled by a mysterious urge, and gives them the journal of one of the Danvers patients, a woman named Emily Patterson who died in Danvers in 1939. “I now feel compelled to share this journal with you,” says Hannah.
The book tells two love stories. One is the relationship between Dana and Nick, who need to work through several personal issues before they can be together as destiny obviously intends. The other is the story of Emily Patterson and Jonathan Hunter, who met in 1918 and were tragically separated. This story is told in italicized chapters of Emily’s journal, which Nick and Dana read together. It soon becomes obvious that there are eerie similarities between the two couples.
There are several things I liked about this book. I enjoyed the fact that Dana and Nick are a mature couple whose children are adults – a bracing change from the usual twenty-something heroes and heroines. Also, I loved the details about Danvers, a beautiful, strange place with a terrible history of overcrowding and mistreatment of patients.
On the negative side, this is a fairly rambling and slow-moving book. Over two years go by without much action – just lots of meals. Almost every single encounter between any of the characters involves eating. You could play a drinking game with this book, taking a shot every time someone mentions food, except that this might lead to serious liver damage. There are several wandering side-trips, like the long digression about Dana’s sister’s struggle with addiction. The author has a very melodramatic turn of phrase that gets old fast: sentiments like “I am convinced what we share will go on into eternity” go a long way and do not need to be repeated all the time. Finally, the big revelation about Emily at the end of the book is so anticlimactic it’s almost funny; I had figured out the “secret” so long before that I had no idea that Nick and Dana didn’t know it, as well.
Although this love story has an HEA ending, I’m not classifying this as a romance novel (and I suspect that the author reads very few romances). That’s because the book’s true focus is not really on the couple. Much of the last third of the book is taken up with talk about how people’s souls evolve on nonphysical planes of reality, and how people need to heed the advice of their nonphysical teachers in order to achieve their true destiny. Dana and Nick (and Emily and Jonathan) mostly serve as illustrations of the author’s spiritual message. Characters say things like “Since meeting you I’ve encountered an increased awareness. And I see that by following my feelings, my insight continues to grow.”
Readers might find Lost Souls of the Witches’ Castle a refreshing break from the usual romance novel fare. I personally like a little less spiritual exploration and a lot more character development and plot. I also thought it moved along too slowly, and about half of the impassioned declarations of eternal devotion could have been cut out to good effect. This book is an interesting change of pace with some nice moments, but it’s ultimately not very successful.