Today, AAR Reviewers Maggie, Caz, Mary, Linniegayl and Melanie have AAR’s first ever Round Table Discussion. The book chosen is Simone St. James Lost Among the Living. Ms. St. James is a popular author with AAR staff having made several Top Ten lists in 2015 as well as having two DIK reviews on our site. Lost Among the Living is her most recent release and one that has been eagerly anticipated by many.
Here is Maggie’s summary of the novel:
England 1921. The Great War may be over but its effects are still being felt by those left behind. For Jo Manders the fact that her husband Alex has been declared missing rather than dead has meant near destitution. With no widow’s pension she has been forced to accept a position as paid companion to Alex’s wealthy, autocratic Aunt Dottie. The post had been meant to last only so long as Dottie traveled the continent, acquiring art from families made desperate by the conflict, so it is with some surprise that Jo finds herself invited to stay on, accompanying Dottie back to her home in the country.
But she begins to wonder at the wisdom of accept that offer. Wych Elm House is a place of desolation and grief which holds many problems- Dottie’s husband is a cold, callous libertine, the village whispers of the mysterious deaths that took place there before the war, and baffling footsteps follow Jo down the halls but when she looks, there is no one behind her. Dottie’s son, whom Dottie is convinced is simply suffering fatigue from the war, has been gravely injured and appears in peril of an early demise. Perhaps the greatest surprise of all, however, is to learn that Alex had once lived here and that this house just may hold the secret to his disappearance during the war.
Maggie: One of the things I love most about Ms. St. James’ writing is that she manages to deliver a classic gothic style tale with all the familiar elements while still somehow making the story seem fresh. Do you all agree with that assessment or would you say her work differs in some way from the classic format?
Mary: I would agree that St. James’ take on the Gothic is definitely refreshing. She has the mystery and menace interwoven throughout the story, but somehow seems to overcome the overwrought that seems a staple of traditional Gothic stories.
Caz: I think she has definitely revitalized the genre but that I don’t think she is straying too far from the established formula. If you go back to what I suppose we might term “classic” (i.e literary) gothic novels, the biggest difference is in the heroine. 18th and 19th century gothic heroines were a passive lot on the whole, women to whom things happened so the change that came with people like Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt of a far more active heroine is a welcome one. There is perhaps less focus on the villain in Ms. St. James’ books – probably because she writes more about the supernatural whereas most of the other gothics I’ve read focus on a flesh-and-blood baddie.
One area in which she is quite traditional however is in having a hero who is, for most of the story, morally ambivalent AND who is pretty much a secondary character. Gothics are typically – again, the ones I’ve read – narrated by the heroine which means it’s easier for the author to explore that ambivalence – the reader is never in his head and all we know of him is knowledge gained by looking at him through someone else’s eyes.
Again though, a nice change from the formula is that the heroines don’t NEED saving although they appreciate the help and a shoulder to lean on.
LinnieGayl: I think for me her books have gradually evolved into having more of a gothic feel, with the latest being the closest to it. I would definitely have classified her first two books — The Haunting of Maddie Clare and An Inquiry Into Love and Death — as simply being historical mysteries with paranormal elements and strong romantic threads.
But Lost Among the Living definitely has a gothic feel for me, reminding me of many of the early books I read by Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Jane Aiken Hodge, with the added feature of a paranormal component.
Melanie: I feel like it’s a historical mystery wrapped in a Gothic novel, if that makes sense. I felt like Jo was incredibly similar in many ways to the female detective characters, her intelligence and perceptive nature set her apart from many of the Gothic characters I’ve read before.
Overall, I’d say the Gothic aspects are concentrated near the beginning and the end, especially with the arrival at Wych Elm House. The house itself is basically an extra character, much like a classic Gothic novel. The middle section of the story is mostly the mystery, though, only lightly clothed in Gothic allusions. Personally, I really appreciated that, because it gives the reader a break. Gothic novels, like Mary said, can be overwhelming and overwrought. This story definitely wasn’t.
Caz: I agree about Jo although I did have an issue with how very quickly she just thought “Oh – that’s Frances”. Maybe I missed something, but it seemed to me that she accepted the ghost/spirit and knew who it was without thinking much about it. Dare I say I thought it was a bit of lazy writing? We know what to expect from an SJS book by now, so because readers would know who it was, Jo had to know straight away, too? While she’s all the things you say – intelligent and perceptive – and perhaps the big increase in the belief in spiritualism that SJS used in The Other Side of Midnight was something that had affected Jo, we weren’t told that.
Like you, I didn’t mind the break from the “gothicness” around the middle, but I did find that some of the descriptive passages were overdone. Don’t get me wrong – I liked the book, but it didn’t work for me as well as The Other Side of Midnight or Silence for the Dead – not until around the 60% mark with “the arrival” – which anyone who’s read the synopsis would have guessed was on the cards. Smacked wrists for the blurb writers.
Maggie: I agree that the back blurb saying “And then a familiar stranger arrives at Wych Elm House…” deserves smacked wrists for the writers. It would have been fine if that “stranger” had appeared in the first third of the book but it was too far into the novel for me to view that hint as anything but a complete spoiler.
Caz, you mentioned that “the arrival” made the book work better for you. For me it served as a bit of a downturn. I found myself not liking The Familiar Stranger much at all. The excuses given for some of what happened in the past sounded a bit lame to me and I struggled to accept them.
LinnieGayl: Okay, I didn’t read the back blurb but guessed very early on what was going to happen (Familiar Stranger appearance), as I thought the hints were pretty obvious. And once he appeared I rather wished he hadn’t. I didn’t particularly care for him.
Mary: Jumping in here. I think that “the stranger” put a nuance on the story that made readers question black and white judgments. At first glance it is so easy to judge negatively and I did that. But this character was between a rock and a hard place and I really think he chose the ONLY way that showed a path forward. St. James certainly does not choose the easy path. At first, I did not like the hero much at all. There was too much of the betrayal about him, but as I learned more about his circumstances, I felt more kindly toward him. He won’t make my top 10 list of heroes, or even my top 50, but this story was much more about Jo and her growth than about the romantic relationship. I would be interested in a continuation of their story to see how it might play out.
Caz: That one line at the end of the blurb really affected my reading of the book – because of it, I was waiting for The Familiar Stranger to turn up… and waiting… and waiting so that after around the 30% mark I was getting impatient! That doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the brilliantly atmospheric writing – SJS has such a poetically beautiful turn of phrase and is so good at creating an atmosphere of menace and I saw all that. I saw it and appreciated her technical skill, but I wasn’t feeling the book. Using a musical analogy – I can analyze a piece of Schoenberg, see how it works and how beautifully it’s put together. But listening to it doesn’t do anything for me. Does that make sense?
I also felt she set up the mystery surrounding The Familiar Stranger far more strongly than the ghost story which, as I said before almost came out of nowhere – not for the reader because they’ve bought the book and are, I’d think expecting it! – but as far as Jo is concerned. So I was much more interested in what happened to Alex and solving that mystery than I was in the ghost. Which is why, as Maggie said, the book really slumped for me between that first 30% and 60% when The Familiar Stranger finally arrived. The flashbacks were a nice touch but I wanted to KNOW!!
Melanie: I would agree that the ghost thing kinda came out of left field. I really enjoyed it as a reader, but I thought that Jo in particular was surprisingly accepting of that whole part of the story. She saw Frances, and basically just went “Oh, that’s the dead daughter. Got it.” and moved on from there. Some of the haunting bits she was surprised or scared by, but the actual ghost? Not so much.
Maggie: To me Jo suspecting the ghost was Frances and then confirming that through family pictures seemed natural. We expect ghosts to be people who have some sort of trauma in their past and Frances definitely had that. Also, Jo initially took the ghost for a real person, meaning Frances’ ghost would be wearing modern clothing. And again, the most recent female death in that house, the ghost most likely to be wearing modern clothing, was/is Frances. So I completely understood Jo’s leap to label the ghost as Frances.
Mary: I also think that the ghost issues believability depends on the reader’s own openness to accepting the supernatural in a story and placing one’s self in that era. If the paranormal were a part of everyday beliefs, then Jo’s immediate acceptance would not seem so contrived. That issue did not even cross my mind when reading the book. I knew St. James was a paranormal kind of author, so I had already set my mind to believe.
Caz: “I knew St. James was a paranormal kind of author, so I had already set my mind to believe. ” Is exactly what I meant when I said before that I thought it might be lazy writing because readers know what to expect from one of her books by now.
I really don’t know much about how far people at the time believed in the supernatural. SJS explored this in The Other Side of Midnight and it seems there was definitely an uputurn in interest in spiritualism after WW1 for obvious reasons. But if Jo was into that, it was never mentioned.
LinnieGayl: Yes, I guess the believability of the ghosts never occurred to me either. I knew from reading her past books to expect ghosts, so didn’t even think that much about Jo’s reaction. Ms. St. James said in a talk I went to that she writes what she likes to read, and that includes some romance, some mystery, and some paranormal.
Going back to the earlier comment about the spoilerish information in the back cover: I didn’t read the back cover until several of you commented on it. Upon reading it now, that is a rather obvious spoiler. However, setting that aside, I thought the clues were pretty blatant in the book about what might happen.
Caz: Yes, it was pretty clear in the book, too – which made it all the more frustrating when The Familiar Stranger took so long to show up.
LinnieGayl: Yes! I just kept waiting and waiting for him to appear.
Mary: That part did frustrate me a little. But it did add to the tension and it was a tension filled book.
LinnieGayl: I completely agree about the book being tension filled. I felt almost nervous throughout the read. She does a great job of creating an atmosphere of — to be rather trite — impending doom.
Caz: You know, as I’m looking back on it for this discussion, the more I’m realizing just how frustrated I got with it. I’m sure you’re all going to utter howls of protest, but I really struggled through the whole second quarter (or thereabouts). Jo’s whiplash inducing acceptance of Frances threw me right at the start, and then as I said, I was finding all the stuff about not really knowing her husband and her non-widow status to be far more intriguing. The only time I felt that Jo was in danger (in the early part of the story) was in the part where she was attacked by the dog in the forest.
Mary: I absolutely loved the book. As I said, the ghost thing did not throw me at all. I grew up in a family that relished telling ghost stories and one of my favorite books as a child was 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey by Kathryn Tucker Windham (I was fortunate enough to hear her tell stories in person a few times).
Caz: It’s not that I don’t like ghost stories. I just didn’t think that this one, when all was said and done, was particularly interesting. Silence for the Dead, now – THAT’s a good ghost story!
Linniegayl: One thing I find interesting is how different the ghosts are in each of her books.
Mary: I agree. The ghost in Silence for the Dead was pretty malevolent, whereas Frances was spooky but not evil.
Maggie: Yes, I didn’t find Frances anything like the horrifying ghost in An Inquiry into Love and Death or even like the dangerous if pitiable Maddy Clare.
I don’t know that this is my favorite by the author – I think that might be either The Other Side of Midnight or The Haunting of Maddy Clare – but I am with Mary in that I did love this novel.
LinnieGayl: I liked this and my review will give it a B+. It’s not my favorite (that would fall to An Inquiry Into Love and Death and The Other Side of Midnight). But this was completely enjoyable — despite the “impending doom.”
Melanie: Overall, I enjoyed the story, but like Caz, looking back I’m finding pieces that were kinda frustrating. I’m still a bit stuck on Jo’s immediate acceptance of the supernatural, especially with the surrounding issues of insanity. I was expecting her to think herself mad.
But, that being said, I loved the writing and the overarching story. I enjoyed the characters and relationships. I have to admit, this is my first St James, but it definitely won’t be the last.
Caz : I can’t deny that I was a little disappointed in the book. Would I feel the same were it not for that line in the blurb? I’m not sure, but perhaps so because, as LinnieGayl said, the pointers were the in the story as well. Ultimately, I think the story’s priorities were the wrong way around; Jo and Alex were far more interesting than Frances the Drippy Ghost. She presented no real threat to Jo other than in the possibility of having her question her sanity, but that didn’t really happen either. The Other Side of Midnight continues to reign supreme as my favourite Simone St. James book.