On Winding Hill Road
On Winding Hill Road is a gothic romance in the classic mold. Diane Tyrrel ably captures the style and tone of the old gothics, delivering a story that should appeal to fans of the subgenre.
Sarah Logan arrives in San Francisco to take a job as a caregiver to a young girl. May’s mother is dead and her father is frequently away on business, so someone has to stay with the thirteen-year-old. It’s more than a nanny or governess position, as Sarah is expected to be almost a mother to the girl still traumatized from the loss of her own. She will be paid an extravagant salary, and in return must agree to stay in the position for a year.
After her arrival, Sarah is pulled into the mysteries surrounding life on Winding Hill Road. May’s mother died under mysterious circumstances, and the young man who picks Sarah up at the airport informs her it might have been murder. The dead woman had a library full of rare books, but May’s father has forbidden anyone from going into the room. The man himself, Formula One racecar driver Gatien Defalle, soon returns home and Sarah is immediately drawn to him. Gatien is mercurial and remote, and the relationship between him and May seems strained. The longer Sarah stays under Gatien’s employ, the more she comes to care for both father and daughter, and she becomes determined to uncover the truth about all the mysteries in their lives.
Obviously, this isn’t a book that’s trying to break any new ground. The author firmly adheres to the established gothic formula, delivering everything a reader would expect to find in this kind of book while adding her own unique details to the story. The setting isn’t a dark and brooding manor, but a house on the California coast. Yet even though the setting isn’t dark and gloomy, Tyrrel still manages to give it that unmistakable gothic feel where there’s a sense of unease to the locale and secrets lurk beneath the surface, so it works. Gatien’s career is a cool touch I really liked, and the mystery involving the library gets into some interesting details about books and rare texts.
Although the story ostensibly takes place in the present, the characters and the world they inhabit feel old-fashioned. There’s very little about it that feels contemporary. While it won’t necessarily work for everyone, that’s not a criticism. The stylistic choice works well for this story. It feels timeless rather than dated, and gothic fans should appreciate how well Tyrrel pulls it off, much more than most of the new breed of gothics I’ve read. The old-fashioned tone helps sell some of the moments that wouldn’t work in a more contemporary story. Of course, there’s the big misunderstanding where Sarah listens to someone she obviously shouldn’t and believes the worst of Gatien. It’s something that would normally drive me nuts, but in this stylized tale it fits and I was willing to accept it. The story is well-written, and the author has an engaging style.
Some of the story’s less successful moments are the ones that derivate from the formula. For instance, when she meets Gatien, Sarah doesn’t react with fear or nervousness. Instead, she’s much more outspoken. While I always appreciate a strong heroine, I was a little surprised anyone would be so mouthy toward her employer the first time she meets him, something that didn’t seem like the wisest choice under any circumstance. May is also supposed to be moody and withdrawn for reasons that are revealed over the course of the story, but I didn’t think she was any more so than any regular thirteen-year-old. The story moves at perhaps too leisurely a pace, and the climax is somewhat underwhelming.
Still, as a story that’s trying to recapture the feel and appeal of the gothic romance, this is an entertaining read. On Winding Hill Road doesn’t break any new ground, and that’s pretty much the point. It’s a well-executed version of the formula. It may not win any new converts, but if you like this kind of story, it’s a good read.