Here's another book that will end up on my top list for 2006. Things We Once Held Dear by Ann Tatlock is the story of Neil Sadler, his family, and a terrible event that tore them apart many years ago. This incident is one of the reasons Neil left his hometown of Mason, Ohio, to live in New York to be an artist, never looking back until now
The book opens as Neil returns home and his cousin Grace is giving him condolences on the sudden death of his wife, Caroline, a woman the family has never met. Grace and Dennis now own and live in the huge "Gothic horror" that once belonged to Uncle Thomas (Tom), Grace's father, and was once the center of the Sadler family. Memories of happier times - the laughter of children, the conversations between young and old alike - seem to fill the house. Neilís decision to visit Mason was last-minute, but he ends up offering to help remodel the home for Grace and Dennis since he is in town anyway. Grace and Dennis plan to start up a bed-and-breakfast, to change the old house full of memories and ghosts into something brand new.
Neil isn't sure what really prompted his return home. He hasn't been back since he left after the awful event surrounding the death of his Aunt Helen - he wasnít even twenty years old when he turned his back on the family. Neil is filled with regret, sorrow, anger and other emotions connected to the death of Uncle Cal and Aunt Helen, as well as to Mary, their daughter, a cousin he was once close to. The mystery behind all of this is slowly revealed in flashbacks, but the past is ever-present for Neil; what haunts him will never go away, unless that mystery is solved, something he feels will never happen.
The Sadler's are a huge family - cousins and aunts and uncles who lived and grew up together. Their history is told through the memories of Neil, Mary, and other family members, including Uncle Bernard, an Episcopalian priest now living in the Towers of the "Gothic Horror," waiting to meet his maker. While the mystery of Helen's death is at the center of the story, the true theme is that of regret, beginnings and endings. Everything is all hindsight, as the characters in the book will discover, and the reader will be immersed in the stories of a family whose members are hiding a secret that could affect them all.
Things We Once Held Dear centers on one manís nostalgic memories of his family as he was growing up. "You can't go home again" may be true for some, but Neil finds out that maybe one can. Neil ran away to hide from a terrible event that he could not face, but he returns home, grieving for his wife and wondering what could have been if he had never left Mason. The ending is cathartic, as the family finally learns the truth behind the mystery of Aunt Helen's death. This book is a wonderful reading experience. Highly recommended.