When I started reading The House Across the Lake I was already aware that this mystery/thriller contained a huge, supernatural twist thanks to the review of fellow blogger Mogsy who had showcased this book previously, so when it happened (and Mogsy’s comparison to Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes was indeed spot-on) I was not surprised, nor put off, but still I would like to warn potential readers who don’t enjoy the addition of the uncanny to their thrillers that this kind of element is there.
The story focuses on Casey Fletcher, a former actress whose career floundered after the tragic death of her husband: she’s now a grief-stricken alcoholic who stopped caring long ago about the media frenzy over her drunken public appearances. Casey’s mother sent her to the family’s lake-house in Vermont to keep her out of the media’s voracious eye, and with the not-so-high hope of sobering her up, but unfortunately the choice of location is the wrong one since Len, Casey’s husband, drowned in the same lake on whose shore the house stands, so that heartbreak and loneliness are driving Casey to drink practically nonstop from morning to night.
Something however breaks that self-destructive routine when one day Casey spots someone in danger of drowning in the lake: taking to her boat, she’s able to save the person, only to discover that it’s Katherine Royce, a famous former model and her neighbor on the other side of the lake, where the woman lives with her husband Tom in a new house whose big glass windows seem to invite a peek into the life of the rich and famous Royces. And that’s exactly what Casey starts to do, pointing her binoculars at the Royces’ house and seeing that apparently her neighbors’ marriage is not the modern fairy-tale told by the tabloids; so, when Katherine suddenly disappears, Casey becomes convinced that Tom must have killed her, and she launches into an alcohol-fueled, often messy crusade to uncover the truth. Only to discover that appearances can be very, very misleading….
It’s going to be very difficult to write about this book while steering away from spoilers, particularly where that famous narrative twist is concerned, but what I can and will share are the reasons why this book proved quite disappointing – and certainly not for the supernatural element: being aware that it would be there made me look forward to it, curious about what it would be, and it turned out to be an intriguing one indeed, even though it came with little or no foreshadowing, unless one takes into account a passing mention that might very well have been overlooked. No, what disappointed me were the characters and their actions, which often made little or no sense, and a feeling of… narrative flimsiness – for want of a better definition – that employed some well-known tropes without trying to invest them with some much needed uniqueness.
Casey takes of course the role of unreliable narrator (and toward the end we will discover just how unreliable…), but she is also an unsympathetic character I could not drive myself to care about: we are told that she’s grieving for the death of her husband, and we see her trying to drown that grief in the bottle, but I never truly felt her pain. If her alcohol-induced fugue state was a way of expressing that sorrow, I’m afraid it did not work for me; what’s worse, at some point we learn about a certain dramatic revelation from the past, and Casey’s harsh choice in dealing with it, but I’m afraid that the too-short time frame from discovery to action made the whole sequence totally unbelievable, because there was simply no time for her to truly process that momentous epiphany. I apologize if this sounds cryptic, but to do otherwise would lead to spoilers…
The other characters fare no better, from the potential victim’s husband’s suspicious attitude, to the avuncular protectiveness of the older neighbor, to the appearance of an attractive neighbor/caretaker who might be a romantic interest, they are barely sketched figures that left no lasting impression and serve only as a sort of foil for Casey’s reckless and ill-advised choices. I held some hope once the true villain of the story was revealed – and here I have to acknowledge that the author managed to work some very successful red herrings here in the narrative transitions between the “before” and “now” of the various chapters – but the exchanges with Casey destroyed that hope because instead of the hoped-for dramatic effect they bordered on the grotesquely outlandish and robbed those scenes of the required emotional impact.
As I said the weird element in the novel was an intriguing one, and being a fan of horror themes I did not find it objectionable, even though it might have been introduced a little more organically: what I find hard to accept is that the… phenomenon, let’s call it that way, did not manifest itself sooner and lay in wait for a very long time before coming to the surface, considering that there were many opportunities for that to happen before Casey’s arrival on site. And as a last complaint, I must add that once the main story seems to have reached its climatic end, we are treated to a second dramatic revelation, which not only steals the wind from the main ending, but adds what I felt was a ludicrous note by having a second baddie threaten Casey – I kid you not – with a five thousand dollars bottle of wine. If this sounds as insane as it is unbelievable, it’s because it IS.
In the end, I’ve come to view The House Across the Lake as a bundle of missed opportunities that turned what was a potentially intriguing story into an alcohol-soaked mess. From what I’ve seen online, this does not seem to be the author’s best offering, but still I’m not exactly encouraged to explore further….