The Strangers on Montagu Street
I remember fondly Barbara Michaels’ (aka Elizabeth Peters) ghost novels such as Ammie, Come Home and I miss them, so Ms. White’s books definitely fill a long empty void. Utilizing the same technique of having ordinary people with commonplace problems such as a rebellious teenage daughter or a faulty house foundation facing the extraordinary makes the unbelievable plausible.
I did read the first book in the Tradd Street series three years ago, then I skipped the second, leading me to believe that you can read this third book as a standalone, although each book does build on the others, especially in regard to the characters’ relationships. After finishing this novel, I am definitely motivated to seek out the missed installment.
Melanie Middleton still hasn’t completely come to terms with her ability to see and hear ghosts. Her first inclination is to start humming one of her favorite ABBA songs, shutting them out. But she becomes more open to finding out what the ghosts need from her, thanks to her newly reconciled mother’s advice. However, she’s not willing to accept her mother’s counsel on her relationship with Jack Trenholm. Even her deceased grandmother nags her with suggestions about listening to her heart. Two weeks ago, a young girl claimed that Jack was her father, and Melanie hasn’t spoken to him since.
So it is a big surprise when she opens the door to his knock at 5:15 in the morning. Jack’s relationship with his daughter Nola is foundering. Nola’s mother told her that Jack was aware of her existence leaving Nola filled with anger and hurt over his abandonment. Unable to convince Nola that her mother lied, Jack and his daughter have spent the last two weeks fighting. At his wits end, he asks Melanie if Nola can stay with her.
Melanie is stunned, especially since Jack is dating her distant cousin. However, she sees past Nola’s blustering to a scared, lost young girl and agrees. Later she finds out that Nola’s mother was an addict with a history of OD’ing who intentionally killed herself. She senses a presence around Nola, but is not sure that it is the girl’s mother.
Jack’s parents, horrified at Nola’s childhood of living hand to mouth, give her an antique Victorian dollhouse. At age thirteen, she tries to pretend that she is too old for this type of present, but secretly she is thrilled and demands its placement in her room. Melanie is appalled since she sees darkness around the edges of the house but acquiesces. Soon there is more than one presence around Nola causing Jack and Melanie to seek out the dollhouse’s provenance.
The book is set in Charleston, giving it a wonderful mystical ambiance of Southern tradition which definitely adds to its charm. As a history buff, there is something so appealing about a culture that takes pride in its roots – when not for pretentiousness but because of a sense of continuity.
This book, even with its ghosts, is very much a relationship-driven book. I admire how the characters come alive. Melanie with her organized lists, love of sweets and dread of the unknown; Jack coping with the realization that his charm can’t solve everything and Nola who for so many years was the parent to her mother instead of the child, dealing with her mother’s death and her feelings of abandonment and betrayal.
The first portion of the book played out slowly, failing to create a sense of urgency propelling me to the end. It is not that I was bored but I found it easy to put the book down and go off and do other things. However, toward the last third of the book, the story drew me in and I couldn’t put it down until finishing.
My strong need for closure clashes with my appreciation for the slowly unfolding relationship between Jack and Melanie which seems to be moving forward at a snail’s pace. The constraints keeping them apart seem very reminiscent of the very first book. Move forward one step, move backward one step. I do understand that their relationship is the hook to keep readers coming back, however to be continued is one of my least favorite phases in the whole English language. I very much hope that the next book in the series is being written now. Individuals with a appreciation for the supernatural and for Southern history will find much to enjoy in this book, and its author is well deserving of the title of storyteller.