Monday, June 30, 2014

Book Review: "A Sudden Light" by Garth Stein

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

When you're growing up, you rarely give much thought to your family history or your ancestry. In some cases, you have no idea (through no fault of your own) what your family history is, because of the myriad tensions and estrangements that characterize many families.

That is definitely the case for 14-year-old Trevor Riddell. In the summer of 1990, strained by financial problems, his parents agree to a trial separation, which sends his mother back to live with her family in England, and sends Trevor and his father, Jones, to the Pacific Northwest to visit his father's family. Trevor didn't even know the extent to which his father Jones still had a family, as Jones has been estranged from them for some time.

But when they arrive at Riddell House, the family's decrepit mansion, which is constructed of giant, whole trees, and is set on a huge estate overlooking Puget Sound, Trevor begins to understand the real reason for their trip. Jones has one mission: to convince his aging father, Samuel, who is suffering from dementia, to sign over the property rights, which will allow Jones and his sister, the enigmatic Serena, to sell the house and the property and live a life of wealth. That, however, is easier said than done, as Samuel doesn't want to leave Riddell House, because he is visited by his late wife's ghost.

And that's not the only visitor to the house. The family patriarch, ruthless timber baron Elijah Riddell, mandated that the house be allowed to return to untamed forestland, as a way of making up for the millions of trees his business killed over the years, and Trevor begins to have visions of Elijah's son, who won't rest until his single-minded agenda of carrying out Elijah's wishes is successful. Trevor holds the key, and he is torn between what might ensure his parents get back together, and fulfillment of a promise a father made to his son nearly 100 years before.

I thought A Sudden Light was a moving, beautifully written story about the powerful hold that family can have on us, and how we cannot let ourselves be destroyed by what happened in our past. This is a story about manipulation, loyalty, love, and the desperate need to do the right thing—if you can figure out what the "right thing" truly is. While the "ghost story" elements might not appeal to everyone, I found them to be an integral part of the plot, and really added to the book's appeal.

I am among the few who didn't read Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain, so this was the first time I had the opportunity to experience his writing. I enjoyed this book tremendously and found it truly an emotional, beautiful book. I know that a story about the tenuous relationships between fathers and sons would hit me hard just a little more than six weeks after losing my own father, but beyond the sap factor, I really loved this.


  1. So now you have to go and read The Art of Racing in the Rain! Truly one of the best books I've ever read (and millions of people agree with me).

  2. Stein creates a story that gives us pause one minute and food for thought the next. I loved it, and I am one who does not read ghost stories or fantasy. This novel never lags, and it's going down as one of my best reads in 2014.