I have to admit that I have been curious about this book for a while now. It's a self-published novel that has managed to be a huge success, and has also featured on the New York Times and USA Today Bestseller Lists, something previously unheard of for a self-published novel. It was an eBook only release for a long while but in the UK, publishers Little, Brown picked it up for publication over here, and it was released last week. I have to say it was the cover that initially swung my mind into reading it, as I'd read a few reviews that said it was a bit too sickly and sweet and obvious, but to be honest, I don't mind that at all in books, it's kind of nice to escape to a world where nice things happen!
Mary McAllister has spent much of her life hidden away in her beautiful big house in Mill River. She was abused by her husband, and after a devastating blow left her facially disfigured, she became too frightened to ever leave the house, instead relying on her local priest Father O'Brien to be her lifeline to the outside world. Few people have ever met Mary, and only one knows the secret that Mary has been keeping from the residents of Mill River for a long time. As Mary's health detoriates, she wants to make sure that the town she loves is well looked after but doesn't know how to go about it from the self-imposed prison that is her marital home. What is the secret that Marry is keeping which will change Mill River in ways that they never could have dreamed possible?
As I said, a lot of reviewers have said that this book is a little too saccharin for them, but I have to admit that I really loved it. There was something ultimately quite cosy about the book, and I was soon drawn into the world of Mill River, and its residents. Yes, I could guess how it would all end and I guessed correctly, but it didn't seem to matter. It was a harmless and enjoyable book, and leaves you full of good feeling by the end, and that you know there are good people left in the world. I really enjoyed the way that Chan tells the story through two different narratives, one of Mary and the Mill River residents in the present day, and alternates that with Mary's own story as she's growing up, and how she came to be the recluse that she is.
I found the characters of this book to be interesting. The main ones in the book are Mary and Father O'Brien, but the residents of Mill River are a very important part of this book too. We meet Kyle, the new town policeman and his daughter, the new schoolteacher in town Claudia, "crazy" Daisy who loves brewing homemade potions in her caravan, Lyle the other policeman about town amongst others. I enjoyed reading their stories as much as I did Mary's. Kyle in particular was someone I really liked, the perfect man in many ways and the fact he's a widower makes him a little more likeable in a way! Yes, things happen that aren't so good for these people, but it just adds to tension a little bit, although as I say it was a tad predictable as it went along.
Mary's past story was perhaps the most interesting bit of this book for me, I really looked forward to finding out the things that happened to make Mary the recluse she is today. Chan attempts to go into some detail about Mary's 'Social Anxiety Disorder', and we do a good feeling about how Mary feels when she attempts to leave the house. Reading about her doomed marriage to Patrick, and her love for her horses in quite emotional, and I kept reading dreading what was going to happen next. I felt incredibly sorry for Mary and was desperate for her to overcome her fears, and it's a heart-wrenching journey that this character goes on. The setting for the book of Mill River is perfect, a sleepy quiet town with a small amount of residents, and Chan describes it so well through her writing, it comes to life in your mind as you're reading. The story keeps up a good pace, and I didn't find it slacking at all, although I thought a little twist towards the end was a little unnecessary and didn't seem to fit in and I wouldn't have missed it if it wasn't there!
I thought The Mill River Recluse was a really charming read, and I enjoyed reading it from start to finish. There was something about it that really drew me into reading it, and I was carried away with the story of Mary and her life as a recluse, and wishing only good things for her. It isn't the best written book in the world, don't get me wrong, but it is very enjoyable. There are enough characters to make it interesting, but not too many that you can't keep track. There's a few interesting sub-stories in here to keep up the pace which were good, but it's really Mary's story that is the heart and soul of the book. I really loved it, yes it's sweet and predictable but for me that was part of its charm. A lovely debut novel, and I look forward to Chan's next book which will also be set in Mill River. One to curl up with this winter.
ISBN: 978-0751550214. Published by Sphere on 22nd November 2012. Pages: 384. RRP: £6.99. Also available as an eBook.
Thank you to the publishers for sending me a copy to review for http://chicklitchloe.blogspot.com and to you for reading.
The elderly Mary McAllister is a recluse, and most of the residents of Mill River know very little about her other than that she lives alone in the grand marble house overlooking the town, never venturing out. Father O'Brien, the local priest, is the exception, having known Mary since she was young and officiated at her wedding. Only he knows her secrets and the motives behind why she stays tucked away from prying eyes. As the story moves from her early marriage to the present day, he is her constant companion and link to the outside world.
This is the story of Mary and Father O'Brien, but it's also the story of different people in this Vermont town. Of the local police force, the officers and their families. Of another local woman who is an outsider, trying to fit in. Of a young school teacher, new in town, who has secrets of her own. All great ingredients for a story with some mystery, but this tale is surprisingly suspense-less because so many of the secrets are given away early on.
Let's start with the praise, though, because for some reason I could not put this book down. The style of writing was exactly what I like, a modern American voice in the vein of Jodi Picoult or Diane Chamberlain. The story stays fresh and engaging by switching at crucial stages between different points in time, and different points of view and it captivated me throughout. It wasn't just the vague mystery to be uncovered that intrigued me, but more the window into the life of this small town and its residents. This is a book with an ensemble cast rather than a few lead roles, because although it starts off as Mary's story, a lot of the further developments in no way involve her, or the priest, and other people get their moment in the spotlight. At first this appealed to me, but after I thought about it more things started to change.
My real concern about this book is that at times it reads like a series of facts or unrelated incidents, rather than a well rounded story. There are many side arcs that appear important to the story, such as Kyle and Claudia's relationship, and Leroy's behaviour, but don't come together even at the end. It's almost as if Mary wrote the story herself, sitting in the mansion and looking down on the activities of the town, simply writing what she saw. These things have no bearing on Mary's past or her present, but the way they were interwoven with the story I expected a sudden moment of clarity towards the end, a crescendo where they all came together. Daisy was a confusing character and she at least generates some closure towards the end, but it's not enough to make you forget about the others. I think perhaps the issue was that the book was set up to make you think the focus was on Mary in the first few chapters, so you naturally assumed everything would come back together in the end, and yet a lot of points were almost random observations rather than useful contributions to the story.
I also though the blurb on the back, and indeed the tagline on the front bore little resemblance to the pages between the covers, almost as if the writer of those had not read the book. The insinuation that Claudia is interested in Mary, for example, is a wild over-exaggeration, for the two never meet and nor does Claudia talk or wonder about her for any prolonged period. The emphasis seems in the wrong place, and again sets the reader up for a different story, leading to expectations and confusion. It's frustrating because this was a really good story...just not the story the blurb made it out to be.
I really don't want to be too harsh on the book, though, because I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. In a way the different unrelated elements were what kept me reading, as I expected things to fall into place if I ploughed through just a few more pages. As you'll now know, they don't all slot neatly into place as I'd anticipated, but that wasn't apparent to me until the very end so for the first 300 or so pages I was raving about it to anyone who would listen.
Ultimately it depends on what you're looking for in a book. Critically I'm not sure this one can hold its own, but for readers it is, as is so often the case, a different story. I enjoyed this book. I identified with the characters, cared about what happened to them, and quite fancied moving to Mill River (and not just for the baked goods). It's a bit overly sweet in places but then this is small town America. It's almost to be expected. Looking back it wasn't perfect, but for the way I felt when reading it, it's getting a full 5 stars because I don't think it's fair to penalise it. One to enjoy rather than think too closely about, for sure, but enjoy it you will.
Out now in paperback and Kindle. This review first appeared on www.thebookbag.co.uk