There’s nothing more unnatural than losing your child--not even talking to the dead. Just ask Charlotte “Charlie” Cates, who is still reeling over the loss of her young son, Keegan, who unexpectedly died from a brain tumor. Charlie’s had a good career as
a managing editor of an affluent women’s magazine in New York, but since Keegan’s death, she’s had no social life and has hardly any family, except for her plainspoken grandmother whom she visits only occasionally. Drowning in a constant Ambien hangover, Charlie finds herself haunted by ghosts--not just Keegan but by another little boy who reaches for her arm and draws her in deeper so that her fingers seem “to melt like ice when they meet her skin.”
For the first time since Keegan’s death, Charlie finds herself penetrated by grief that churns in her stomach. There’s a child missing--just nine--who speaks to her.
The visitation coincides with a well-timed and unexpected job offer from her old boss to investigate a thirty-year cold crime. One of the greatest mysteries of the century, the crime is that of the Deveau family whose two-year-old son, Gabriel, vanished without a trace. Local law enforcement have reopened the case in what could be a major break. The Deveau family want to write a book.
Patriarch Neville died last year and his wife, Hettie, has cancer. Twin daughters Sydney and Brigette want someone to write a history of their family. There’s also
brother: handsome Andre Deveau, CEO of Deveau Hotels, who seems pleasant and surprisingly low-key.
Charlie travels to Chicory, Louisiana, haunted by dreams of a swamp and swishing water, and of a boy in a boat with dark eyes and longish hair and a chipped tooth. As his gentle words send little chills down Charlie’s spine, the connection lodges itself deep and sharp inside her stomach. Floating around in her subconscious and turning up in her dreams is the great Deveau estate of Evangeline, as well as Gabriel’s age and his sudden appearance. Buoyed by the ghost of the little boy who sends messages to her while she dreams, Charlie begins her investigation, visiting the local library where a series of pictures capture Chicory’s history as well as the Deveau family.
There’s also the Deveau estate itself, and its swamp with Spanish moss that drapes down, so gloomy and majestic. Charlie’s visions of the boy the boat
(“here once but now separated by time”) only reinforce her gut instinct that a male family member--probably Gabriel’s father--was somehow involved.
The FBI, working with the local and state police, quickly focused on Roy Duchesne, groundskeeper of the vast Evangeline estate, but Roy had an ironclad alibi. The Deveau family were also dismissed as viable suspects. Charlie, meanwhile, becomes seduced by
the precise symmetry of Evangeline and by Jules, the officious estate manager who gives her complete access to the family’s genealogical archives. Charlie is determined to find a way to talk to increasingly frail Hettie Deveau,
preferably without Jules and the twins finding out. Hettie is a grieving mother who for thirty years has suffered, not knowing the fate of her youngest child. But is Hettie somehow complicit in Gabriel’s disappearance?
Young weaves a number key characters into her story, both from the present and the past: the cook, Leeann, a talker by nature whose father owns a diner in town,
and kindly Detective Minot, whose own sick daughter shadows Charlie’s tragedy. Minot tells Charlie there’s been no evidence and no body for thirty years, and that
the ransom note was possibly designed to throw off the police. There’s also
Noah, a kindly, gun-toting Texan who has come to Evangeline to landscape its
vast gardens. Noah is thrilled to find romance with Charlie, even though Charlie
is at first hesitant, more interested in finding out how Noah is connected to
past housekeepers Maddie and Jack Lauchlin, whose son Sean vanished in June 1982, just three months before Gabriel. It was the last time Sean would ever visit Evangeline. No one ever looked into Sean as a suspect, even though there were rumors that he had been fighting with Maddie and Jack.
From sisters Sydney and Brigette (“superficial socialites”) and Andre, a closeted, uptight businessman, Charlie works to put together the puzzles from the past as the Deveau family dynamics dance through her head. The history of the place seems oppressive with its sickness, injury, and abuse. Clearly terrible things must have happened here. Andre has no problem portraying his father as “a bastard” and his sisters as shallow airheads, or even himself as sometimes clueless and bewildered about his family’s dark past. All the while, Charlie remains haunted by images of the boy and the boat and the darkened swamp with its pregnant stillness, “like something crouched low, waiting.”
Although Young sells herself out with her telegraphed ending, she’s mostly strong in detailing the Deveau family’s dark places and what they’ve covered up in a scenario that keeps us guessing. Although this book strafes the edges of women’s fiction and the overly active supernatural, the novel remains a compelling account of people spiraling through a world of naked fantasy, self-delusion, and even murder.
As Charlie eventually learns the shocking truth about Gabriel, Sean, and Noah, she’s in danger of becoming sad collateral in a story that balances her terrible sense of loss with a new and unbridled happiness.