When the musical Pal Joey first opened on Broadway, a critic who loved its wonderful music but was repelled by its amoral characters asked if it were possible to draw good water from a foul well. In the case of Shadow Lover, can you have a good book populated with characters, none of whom are sympathetic? Well, yes you can. Shadow Lover is a very exciting modern gothic/mystery, but I did not like any of the characters. Not the hero, not the heroine, not the villains – nobody.
Carolyn Smith lives with the very wealthy MacDowell family. Carolyn was never formally adopted, but Sally MacDowell is the only mother she has ever known and when Sally is dying of cancer, Carolyn comes back to nurse her.
Sally had one son, Alex, who was wild and dissolute. Sally loved and indulged him and he and Carolyn had a relationship where he alternately was kind to her then tormented her (mostly the latter). When Alex was 17 he disappeared. Now he shows up. But is this Alex? On the night he left, Carolyn saw him apparently murdered by an unknown person. Surely this man cannot be Alex. But he looks Alex, talks like Alex, has a scar like Alex, and is allergic to shrimp like Alex, plus he knows a lot of MacDowell history.
So is this man Alex? Shadow Lover keeps you guessing for a long time. He is. He is not. He is. He is not. Just who is he?! This is the best part of Shadow Lover. Stuart gives you clues that lead you to believe he is Alex, and then just when feel like you know the truth, the rug is yanked out from under your feet, only to be replaced a few more pages into the story. The truth is out there, and there are some clever surprises along the way.
Now as for the characters – Carolyn Smith is wound up so tight it’s a wonder she does not shatter like glass. She is also a martyr and doormat who allows the MacDowell family to treat her almost like an unpaid servant. Alex was a wild and untamed boy and hasn’t grown up much. He is selfish and arrogant and out for revenge. His love scenes with Carolyn are marked by a lack of caring and compassion and, yes love. They are of the clawing, biting, rip-each-other-to-shreds variety which I don’t like – not at all. As for the rest of the MacDowells – they are a bunch of selfish, greedy, alcoholic, drug-taking, sexually-depraved idiots. No wonder the family is dying out!
If you can overlook the unlikable characters, you will find Shadow Lover to be an exciting and engrossing modern gothic mystery. But don’t expect a love story. When Alex and Carolyn declared they loved each other, I just didn’t believe them.