“Moonrise: A Novel”
Author: Cassandra King
Publisher: Maiden Lane Press
Price: $26.95 (Cloth)
Cassandra King has just published her fifth novel, “Moonrise,” and it is different from anything she has done before.
This is not only exciting, it is risky.
King has established a large readership for her novels, readers with expectations. The novels had been running to a pattern: a likable, trusting woman, nearing middle age, is treated shabbily and perhaps abandoned by her husband. The heroine would sink into despair if not for her loyal friends who come to her emotional rescue with support and some Chablis.
Readers might have liked another, but “Moonrise” stands this plot on its head.
Helen Honeycutt, a 45-year-old divorced woman in Fort Lauderdale, a kind of Rachel Ray, with a ten-minute healthy cooking spot , “Fit to Eat,” on a noon TV show, has an unexpected romance and quick marriage to a man fifteen years older. He is Emmett Justice, a nationally famous, charismatic newsman, energetic, abrupt, a little frightening, known for his tough, relentless interviewing. Imagine a youngish Mike Wallace.
Recently, too recently many would say, Emmett had lost his wife, the beautiful, sophisticated, accomplished, universally adored, in every way perfect, Rosalyn. Rosalyn died in a wintertime one-car accident. Why was the Atlanta belle at their mountain summer home driving on icy roads? Was she looking for something? Everyone is perplexed. Her friend Tansy finds an address book of Rosalyn’s with some cryptic entries, but can make nothing of it.
The newlyweds decide to spend the summer at Moonrise, his elegant but gloomy Victorian mansion, complete with a turret, in tony Highlands, North Carolina.
It is understood that Rosalyn’s oldest friends might have a LITTLE trouble adjusting, but no one expects the nasty, wicked, cruel treatment that Helen receives from Tansy and Kit. Rather than the comforting sisterhood King’s readers expect, these society ladies are vile.
They gossip about Helen, accuse her of vamping the grieving Emmett, of unfairly loosing her youthful wiles on the poor fellow. They work at undermining the relationship between Helen and Emmett. Did one of them want Emmett for herself? They are “mean girls,” jealous, petty, spoiled and manipulative.
And Helen, though not a kid, is insecure, unsure of herself. She is a blue-collar girl from Orlando, not an aristocrat, not at all sophisticated in the ways of the ruling class.
Helen thinks of herself as “coarse and blowsy, an overripe, sun-baked Cracker trying to pass herself off as someone of taste and refinement.” She thinks of Rosalyn as “a slender, single-stemmed white rose.”
It is Rosalyn’s old male friends who accept Helen and are supportive.
Warm, sensitive, understanding males are in short supply in contemporary women’s lit. I found these men very refreshing.
The house itself is unsettling. Helen hears strange sounds. Are there ghosts in the attic? Objects mysteriously vanish. She thinks she sees figures disappearing around corners, or into the garden.
At this point many will recall, correctly, Daphne Du Maurier’s modern gothic masterpiece “Rebecca,” published in 1939 and set in Cornwall, England in 1927. King happily acknowledges the inspiration, but “Moonrise” is fully her own, not a retelling or an adaptation.
There is no large staff of servants headed by the demented Mrs. Danvers, of course—this is, after all, the twenty-first century—but the sinister atmospherics are captured beautifully. It is clear there are secrets at Moonrise. All is not what it seems. These ostensibly cool women have feelings they have not admitted to.
And if the house were not creepy enough, Rosalyn’s garden, neglected and overgrown, is a moon garden. The moonflower vines, night-blooming cereus and even the poisonous Lady of the Night, are best appreciated by the eerie light of the full moon.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”