Duran Duran is on the radio, Pat Sajek is spinning The Wheel of Fortune, and everyone is wearing bangle bracelets. The Only One Left, Riley Sager’s latest mystery, bounces between the dark times of the 1929 stock market crash to the era of MTV. The gothic feel of the story gives it a timeless, spooky vibe perfect for fall, but some rather ludicrous plot points and absolutely ridiculous twists keep me from giving it more than a tepid recommendation.
At seventeen, Lenora Hope
Hung her sister with a rope
Stabbed her father with a knife
Took her mother’s happy life
“It wasn’t me,” Lenora said
But she’s the only one not dead
This is the chant Kit McDeere heard in the playgrounds during her childhood in Maine. It referred to the state’s most shocking murder, when one night in 1929, a young woman slaughtered everyone in her family. It is a chant that repeats ominously in Kit’s head as she drives to the crumbling cliffside mansion Hope’s End, where Lenora still lives aged seventy-nine, partially paralyzed and in need of home health care. Kit wouldn’t have taken the job if she weren’t desperate, but after a six-month unpaid leave while she was investigated, vilified in the papers, and shunned by her father, this is the only position available to her. Not many people want to hire a caregiver whose last patient died under questionable circumstances.
Hope’s End lives up to its name. It’s remote, the gate sticks, the roof is missing tiles, there are windows with boards rather than panes, and the floors tilt as the cliff beneath them slowly erodes. Mrs. Baker, a strange, dour woman, answers the door, calls herself the head housekeeper, and introduces Kit to the rest of the staff – the teenage maid, Jessie, charming cook, Archie, and groundskeeper, Carter – and then takes Kit to meet her patient. Lenora is a fragile-looking old woman, confined to either her bed or a wheelchair, able only to use her left hand to tap yes or no. Kit is reassured by none of this and is still afraid of Lenora. Lenora was never tried for the murders because no one could prove she did it. But the circumstantial evidence and local opinion all see her as a family annihilator.
It doesn’t help that Lenora’s last caregiver absconded in the middle of the night, leaving her clothes and other possessions in the room Kit is supposed to use. It gives Kit a deeply uneasy feeling to see the evidence of her predecessor’s hasty flight. Just what happened to make her run away? And will the same thing – or worse – happen to Kit?
Many readers will recognize the classic gothic constructs so common in stories made popular by Mary Stewart or Victoria Holt. While Kit is not the young ingenue heroine typical of those tales, she is, like them, a single woman desperately in need of work, essentially orphaned as a result of the recent death of her mother and the fact her father despises her due to the investigation, and she arrives alone at an isolated crumbling estate with a horrifying history.
Hope’s End is chillingly atmospheric. It has dark nooks and crannies over nearly every inch of it. The blood stains from the murders remain on the carpets, and the portraits of the deceased are still on display, although they are now shrouded in black crepe. Due to the fact that the house is literally falling into the ocean, there are spider web cracks in mysterious spots along the walls, and the manse groans, thumps, and makes all sorts of other charming, eerie noises. There is a shortage of staff due to insufficient funds, and the lack of personnel means every movement causes echoes in the vast, vacant space. As said before, the floors lean and tilt as though the house is floating on the sea rather than just adjacent to it. The uneven footing causes vertigo until one gets their “sea legs”, and the view of a jagged seashore and churning waves from out of every window adds to the feeling of a sinking ship. The location is easily the best part of the book.
The setup and ambiance of the tale are fabulous, with its creepy mansion, forlorn heroine, and old, macabre mystery. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a bit to be desired. The characterization is all over the place: Kit is, as someone older and presumably wiser, meant to be an updated, non-virginal, deeply practical spin on the wide-eyed, sweetheart heroine of yore, but she’s more gullible and less astute than a lot of those girls were, and they were pretty darn naive. Secondary players in a gothic are a bit sinister and enigmatic, adding to the sense of menace in the situation, but in this case, they aren’t ambiguous but missing. Kit rarely interacts with anyone but Lenora, and those few interactions tend to be awkward rather than ominous. The author gets kudos for the 1980s time setting, which avoids having many of the conundrums easily solved by modern technology, but the roughly fifty years between the original events and the 1980s present causes issues of its own, both in the finding of evidence and the viability of it. The house is awesome in its malevolence, but the fact anyone is living there is mind-boggling. Midway through the tale, a large chunk of the back lawn falls into the sea. Sane people would pack up and leave, especially since one of the inhabitants would literally have to be carried out from the second story. The main problems lay, however, with the riddles the tale is meant to solve: the questions surrounding the death of Kit’s former patient, the enigma of what precisely happened with Lenora’s previous caregiver, and, of course, the big bad of the murders don’t get the serious (believable) resolutions they deserve.
There is a common saying that the truth is stranger than fiction. Most of us who have lived beyond a decade or two will have first-hand knowledge that the above is simply fact. Reading, however, is an intellectual exercise. We have to be taught how to do it, and we engage our rational minds while using the skill. In literature, unlike in life, things need to make sense because, for many readers, their minds are committed to looking for that within the text. But that doesn’t happen here. The ending makes zero sense. The author chooses to resolve all conundrums in an explosive series of denouments with absurd twists, and we are left flabbergasted at the who, how and why of the crimes.
The fact that the strong beginning winds down into an unbelievable and messy finale means The Only One Left is ultimately not a great book. If you can just go along for the ride, not applying any analysis or thought to your reading, this might work, but if not, give it a miss.
Recent Comments …
Hmm, isn’t sending your kid to a dangerous school the premise to just about half the YA books out there?…
Thanks for this review. Sounds cheesy as hell and not in a good or fun way
I enjoyed this more than you did but I too struggled with the premise. Unlike The Hunger Games where it…
Thank you . I read the free sample and the nonsense you expound on above was sufficiently grating to me…
It’s really special!
I was Shane when l was 10 ye old l love the theme song what a thing between Shane and…