BOOK: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009)

This book tried hard to market itself as a ghost story, with a spooky front cover and a back-jacket blurb about a haunting.  But though I usually adore ghost stories, the ghostly elements of this novel just cluttered it up, turning what otherwise might’ve been a great book into simply a good one.

The story focuses on the Ayres family, wealthy landowners in the small English village of Warwickshire.  The family has lived in their grand estate house, Hundred Halls, for centuries, and every year, they’ve thrown an enormous party for the entire village, in part as a way to maintain good will with the villagers, most of whom are  hard-working poor people.

But when World War II comes and goes, it takes Mr. Ayres with it, leaving the only remaining Ayres male, his young son Rod, disabled.  Unable to maintain all the land, the family fortune, and with it Hundred Halls, begins to crumble.

One of the locals who attended the Ayres’s lavish parties as a child — his mother was a servant at Hundred Halls — grew up to become the town doctor.  Now, in the late 1940’s, Dr. Faraday is hired as the family’s[primary care physician.  The more time he spends with the three remaining Ayreses, the more he begins to like them, especially Mrs. Ayres and her daughter, Caroline.  Rod also befriends Faraday, though hesitantly at first, and eventually even accepts the doctor’s offer to help with his chronic pain.

Something about Faraday’s interactions with them seems to revitalize the family a bit.  For years, they’ve kept to themselves, the subjects of a lot of speculation and town gossip, and now Faraday has let some of the light back in.  Deciding it’s time Caroline got out more, Mrs. Ayres throws the first party Hundred Halls has seen in years.  This will be their great comeback.  Life’s pickin’ up.  This is gonna be good.  So, so good.

Orrrrrr not.  The party starts off kind of awkward, the guests taken aback by the decrepitude of the once great estate.  But it takes a turn to outright awful when suddenly the Ayres family dog viciously attacks a little girl — seemingly unprovoked.  The town and the family once again estrange themselves from each other, despite Faraday’s efforts to settle things down, and Mrs. Ayres slowly sinks back into a deep, dark funk.

Slowly, and I mean reallllly slowly, we begin to learn that Hundred Halls is haunted.  Rod alerts Faraday to it first, describing his own bizarre experiences the night of the fateful party.  But instead of believing him, Faraday assumes the stress of Hundred Halls has finally driven him crazy.  Only then the maid, Betsy, starts to see things too.  And finally Caroline.  Eventually, the identity of the ghost is revealed to us, as well as its tie to the decline of the once-great Ayres family.

The problem is, this ghost story is so minor an element for the first 3/4ths of the novel that it felt to me more like an underdeveloped afterthought tossed in there in an attempt to re-genre the novel into something “sexier” than “general fiction.”  I’m sure that’s not what happened, of course — Waters hardly needs to resort to gimmicks to sell books at this point.  But the ghost story was disappointingly unoriginal, and mostly just kept getting in the narrative’s way.

What WAS good about the book, and what I wish had been its sole focus, were the characters and their relationships with each other, especially the slow-burning, hesitant affection between Faraday and Caroline, two adults too smart for their own social good, lonely and unexperienced in the ways of romance.  Waters is a great inventor of people — her characters are always so real, so full, and these two were no exception.  The story of a doctor from humble beginnings who brought a wealthy, sleeping family back to life would’ve been a great book.  Tossing in this ghost hoohah?  Waters, what were you thinking?

Despite this flaw, though, I did enjoy reading The Little Stranger.  I’m a big fan of Waters’s other novels and her writing here, if not her storytelling, is as sharp and engaging as always.  If you’re new to her work, though, skip this one for now and dive into the incredible world of Fingersmith instead.  That one’s great, no two bones.


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4 Responses to “BOOK: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009)”

  1. @stellar225 Says:

    ooh! book reviews! This was great, thanks.

  2. megwood Says:

    Ooh! You found me! I just found your blog too! I have much reading to do tonight, beauty girl. You write like buttah. Delicious, soft, satisfying. Everybody make sure you click on “@stellar225” above and dive in. Much better than this book, fo’schizzle. Needs more ghosts, though — Stellar, add some ghosts.

  3. megwood Says:

    And go check your soda.

  4. Caoilinn Says:

    Oh my goodness. I am totally blushing at these unexpected compliments. I have so much writing I need to do – just need to kickstart it. Thank you for making my morning.

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