Growing up in rural Connecticut, I had been told the name Riddell meant something to people in the Northwest. My paternal great-great-grandfather was someone of significance, my mother explained to me. Elijah Riddell had accumulated a tremendous fortune in the timber industry, a fortune that was later lost by those who succeeded him. My forefathers had literally changed the face of America – with axes, and two-man saws and diesel donkeys to buck the fallen, with mills to pulp the corpses and scatter the ashes, they carved out a place in history for us all. And that place, I was told, was cursed. – from prologue, A Sudden Light –
Fourteen year old Trevor Riddell knows next to nothing about his father’s side of the family…but when Trevor’s mother and father lose the family home and go their separate ways, Trevor travels with his father, Jones Riddell, to the Pacific Northwest and lands at Riddell House – a massive mansion made from whole trees and perched on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound. Jones reunites with his sister Serena, an oddly sexual woman who harbors some deep and disturbing secrets. Together, the two siblings hatch a plan to force the elderly Grandpa Samuel (their father and Trevor’s grandfather) to sign over his rights so they can sell off the house and property to land developers. Trevor is pulled into the scheme, while at the same time he begins to explore the mansion (guided by a ghostly, long dead great-uncle) and uncover the secrets of the past.
Garth Stein is perhaps best known for his novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain (which I loved and reviewed here), and with A Sudden Light he returns to some common themes of spirituality, connection to others, and moving forward through life’s challenges. But that is where the similarities end. A Sudden Light is really about family secrets and righting wrongs, about finding what is truly important in life and choosing people over “things” and money.
The book is retrospectively narrated by the adult Trevor who is looking back on the summer of his fourteenth year. Through Trevor’s eyes the reader begins to uncover the dysfunctional lives of the Riddell family. The characters are decidedly quirky and not always wholly likable (Serena is just downright creepy). I fell in love with Grandpa Samuel who is deeply flawed, but completely believable.
Stein’s writing is captivating and beautifully penned. The novel is not without its weaknesses (readers have to suspend reality to fully connect with the characters), but I found myself slipping into the story and looking forward to picking up the book the more pages I turned.
Garth Stein has written a family saga that fully immerses the reader in the Pacific Northwest’s timber industry. Those who enjoy quirky characters and novels which touch the human heart, will want to pick up a copy of A Sudden Light.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review on my blog.