I love novels that combine a gentle magical surrealism with romance and lovable characters. And there is no doubt that Sarah Addison Allen is the star of writing a sweet, lyrical story that contains those essential elements. This time around she takes us to Lost Lake, GA – a quiet spot forgotten by time that has the power to heal the wounded souls that come to its shores.
Exactly one year to the day after she fell asleep Kate Pheris wakes up. Oh, she had gotten out of bed every day between, gone through the motions of living, but she hadn’t truly been awake since the day they buried her husband. Now she is back and is appalled to realize just how much control over her life she has given to her mother-in-law. Her daughter is enrolled in a private school her mother-in-law loves but her husband hated. The bicycle shop she and her husband owned is gone. The home she and her husband shared, a home that once belonged to Kate’s mother, has been sold. Today she and her daughter will move out of it and will move into her mother-in-law’s home. Then Kate will start working at her mother-in-law’s real estate office. She had placed herself completely under someone else’s leadership without a single conscious thought.
That changes when Kate goes to the attic to get her daughter Devin ready for the big move and finds the girl going through an old trunk of clothes. As her daughter investigates the quirky fashions contained within she finds an old postcard addressed to Kate. It was from her Great-Aunt Eby, a woman long estranged from Kate’s mother and grandmother, who was inviting Kate to return Lost Lake. Kate had met her only once, many years ago, when she and her mother had visited the lake side resort for a few entrancing weeks. A fight between the adults had ended the holiday but Kate, at least, was welcome back. Her mother had clearly not wanted her to go back and the postcard had been silently relegated to the trunk for fifteen years. Deciding that was far too long to let an invite go unanswered – and that with the many changes in their life she and Devin could definitely use a break – Kate packs them into the car and they head out in search of their long lost relative.
Eby Pim, proprietress of Lost Lake and erstwhile great-aunt to Kate, is facing a time of transition too. At one time the cabins she owned surrounding the lake had been full of guests, misfits looking for a quiet place to vacation where they could be themselves. Now the cabins are empty, Eby is broke and she and her best friend/cook Lisette will need to find themselves another place in the world. For Eby it is a bittersweet moment: She has wonderful memories here of her husband George and of the magical summers with returning guests who had become friends. It’s a lot, but not enough to keep Lost Lake going and a developer with cash in hand catches her at just the moment she is wondering what she will do. The money will mean Eby can once more travel, return to Paris and Amsterdam where she and George spent some of the most enchanting months of their lives. She determines that this will be her last summer at the lake when Kate and Devin walk through the door.
Returning to Lost Lake reawakens long dormant memories in Kate. She had spent her summer here, chasing fireflies, trekking through the swamp and playing with a young boy called Wes. While her mother and great aunt bickered in the background, Kate had swum, eaten and grown brown as she ran wild in the sunshine. Can she recapture that heady sense of joy? And give that to Devin as well?
One of the fabulous things about Ms. Allen’s books is the lyrical writing. She has the most amazing turn of phrase such as “The wet night air bounced against the electric street lamps, giving off tiny sparks like flint”, which opens the book. Or “The evening held them down in the quiet way a mother puts her hand on her infant’s chest to lull it to sleep.” That lovely imagery of mother and child immediately evokes the beauty of the kind of night which would cause one to fall into a deep and peaceful place of rest. Such images are employed often in the book, giving a sense of incredible artistry to the telling of the tale.
Another strength of the novel is the amazing gift Ms. Allen has of creating quirky, lovable characters and giving them the most amazing back stories. A great example of this was Bulahdeen, whose letters landed into exactly the right hands when she needed them to. Or Selma, who has eight magic charms which help her to ensnare unhappily married men into loving her. Or Lisette –
Written words were considered dangerous things by Lisette. Lisette was born with the inability to speak, but she’d been brazen with written words as a child, substituting a sharp tongue for a poison pen. She blamed herself for the suicide of a paramour when she was just sixteen, after she had slipped him a note during a romantic dinner, telling him she was too good for him and would never love him. The next day she’d learned he’d hung himself in his parents’ apartment.
Lisette has burned the notes she writes ever since.
One of the reasons I highlight Lisette’s story is that it affirms something at the core of this book – almost all the backstories contain a truly dark kernel. Death. Rape. Neglect. Loss. The point of the tale seems to be that we can rise above even our most horrible hours. True enough. But that gives this novel a slightly darker edge than most of Ms. Allen’s other books. The book is still magical, the story still sweet but the drama is deeper, what was overcome is far more pronounced than in her other books.
While it would seem natural that the darker edge would make for a depressing novel, that is far from true. This book is all about the sun rising after a long night, about the light that waits at the end of the tunnel, about the rainbow after the rain. It’s about how sharing grief can heal it, about how letting love in our lives can make the difference between sinking and swimming. It’s about finding your place and path in the world and not letting others choose one for you. In short, Lost Lake is about taking life on with all its quirks and potholes and moving through it with deliberate, hopeful expectation.
I definitely recommend it but I would choose a time when you can really devote yourself to the reading. This is a book that you don’t want to put down. And it’s a book that you will think about long after you do.