Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Review of A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: September 30, 2014
Length: 416 pages
Source: Publisher through NetGalley

Garth Stein's A Sudden Light, a multi-generational family saga set in the Pacific Northwest, offers a promising premise, but Stein fails to deliver a nuanced and compelling novel. An improbable plot and unconvincing characters make this novel one that all but the most devoted of Stein's fans should probably skip.

The Story: It is the summer of 1990, and fourteen-year-old Trevor Riddell is hoping to save his parents’ troubled marriage. While his mother returns to her native England for the summer, Trevor has traveled to Seattle with his father, Jones, to prepare the family’s ancestral estate on Puget Sound for sale. Trevor’s great-great-grandfather Elijah Riddell, he learns, earned a fortune in the timber business, and built a massive home, Riddell House, out of giant, whole trees. Still living in the crumbling mansion are Trevor’s grandfather, who seems to be either senile or perpetually drunk or both, and his sultry, manipulative aunt Serena. There is dysfunction aplenty in this strange family, and tensions among its members mount as they attempt to sell the estate to developers. And it turns out there are other complications as well . . . namely, the ghost of a former ancestor who wants the estate returned to forestland. Trevor seeks to unlock the mysteries of Riddell House and his family’s past.

My Thoughts: When I read the publisher’s description of A Sudden Light, I thought the story seemed to have all the elements of a big, juicy novel: a coming-of-age story, a multi-generational family saga, and a Gothic, possibly haunted, house full of secrets to discover. I was interested in the Pacific Northwest setting, and imagined an interesting view into the timber industry of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But despite the promising premise, these elements never come together to create a cohesive novel.

Trevor’s voice is never fully believable as that of a fourteen-year-old, so the novel falls flat as a coming-of-age story. The other characters are one-dimensional and sometimes sink to the level of mere caricature; the character of Trevor’s aunt Serena, especially, the only major female character, struck me as utterly implausible and, frankly, ridiculous. Stein’s dialogue is stilted; the characters interact in odd ways and periodically launch into soliloquies, but none of it sounds like something actual people might say.

The plot, moreover, seems to be missing something essential. Elijah Riddell, the family patriarch, has allegedly cursed the family with his many sins . . . but Stein never spells these sins out. Ok, he was a timber baron and cut down a lot of trees—that alone isn’t much to hang a good curse on. I couldn’t help thinking of Philipp Meyer’s excellent novel set in Texas, The Son; Meyer clearly unveils the family patriarch’s transgressions, and the fact that his actions reverberate through subsequent generations makes sense. In A Sudden Light, readers are asked to take for granted that Riddell’s ancestors must all pay the price for his unnamed actions.

As for the ghost . . . well, I don’t read many novels with supernatural elements, I’ll admit, so perhaps I’m not the best judge. But for me, in any case, the ghost story part in A Sudden Light didn’t come together very convincingly. The ghost seemed to me mostly a device to further the plot whenever a little additional explication was needed.

Although much in this novel didn’t work for me, I do think there are positive elements here. I was interested in the story of Ben, his lover, and his surprisingly understanding fiancĂ©e—I wanted to hear more about them, and perhaps to travel back in time into their world. It seemed to me that these characters alone might have made an intriguing basis for a novel. Stein writes movingly about nature and conservation; clearly he is passionate about the environment.

I haven’t read Garth Stein before. His previous novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, of course, achieved phenomenal success, but I have to admit I can’t tell from A Sudden Light what endeared Stein to so many readers. With all of the wonderful new books available this fall, I would not recommend this novel.

I received a complimentary copy of this book for review consideration from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, through NetGalley.


  1. That's one less book for the wish list. Perhaps I'll go back and read The Art of Racing in the Rain one day instead.

    1. I'm going to be very interested in following the reaction to this book. I wonder if fans of The Art of Racing in the Rain will be more likely to enjoy it. It's probably safe to say that A Sudden Light would not be the place for someone to start with Garth Stein.