I was putting down books left and right this month, so I didn't blame the book itself when The Witch of Willow Hall failed to hold my attention and I ended up setting it aside. A coworker read it, though, and when we started discussing it, I decided I wanted to finish it so we could have a full conversation.
So that's what the last to days have been--aggressively skimming this what-a-crockery and texting outraged observations to Library Lily. Comments like "that's not how duels work" (her reply: "that's not how life works") and "All she had to do was yank the letter out of his hand when I shouted at her!" I ended up reading the climactic scene out loud to my family because it made so little sense.
Great cover, though, right? I had some hopes. It's 1821 and our heroine, Lydia, arrives in the present tense in New Oldbury, a stupidly named town (upon which the narrator remarks) in western Massachusetts. Her father's going to start a mill and ignore his family, and the rest of them are going to flee the scandal that has been hovering over their good name.
Older sister Catherine is gorgeous and flirty and in trouble. Little Emeline is Lydia's closest friend. Mother drifts through the house in a haze. There is theoretically a brother named Charles off somewhere. Lydia meets Mr. Barrett, her father's young, handsome business partner. There are maybe ghosts.
The pieces start to line up all right, but when they all come together, it collapses into a hot mess. This book includes such thrilling details as incest, death of a child, and miscarriage, but spends most of the time on the page describing the physical locations of people in the room, their expressions, postures, seated positions, and state of their dress. The story cannot carry off the gravitas required by the themes.
Lydia makes literally no choices and takes no action on any subject at any point. She does not tell anyone how she feels about anything, even when they ask, for reasons that don't make much sense. She spends a lot of time trying to pretend nothing is happening--sometimes more than once on the same page (if she doesn't open her mother's door she can pretend her mother isn't sick; if she doesn't open the book, she can pretend she doesn't have any need of the information in it). This lasts right up till the very end, when she does one thing in the last scene (which doesn't go very well) and we're supposed to be impressed.
Catherine would have made a much better main character. She's scheming and conniving. Much of her behavior doesn't make emotional sense, given the shallow characterization--but maybe it would have made sense in her head. Her aggressive attempts to flirt her way to a husband are at least practical and well-planned, unlike literally anything Lydia undertakes in the whole novel.
Everyone in this book behaves so erratically, with so little human feeling or common sense. There was a good idea here--girl with latent powers moves to haunted house--but what I ended up reading was, disappointingly, the least lurid incest book ever.
I got an ARC of this book from Netgalley for an honest review.