3 out of 4 stars
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November, 1929. Savannah, Georgia. In an upstairs room, Rosemary Creek is bathing her naked 14-year-old son Richard. While whispering “Who is Rosemary’s baby?” she molests him. This happens often. He protests, screws his eyes closed, sobs, but still becomes erect from the physical stimulation. He demands that she stop for good, or he will run away from home. She acquiesces and finally leaves the room. Closing the door, she vows to herself to make his life a miserable hell until he again permits her to indulge her perverted desires. Trembling, sobbing, naked, and erect, he vomits into the bathwater.
This is Chapter One of Lady of the Manor by author Adrian Heflin. Published in 2013, it’s available for Kindle and in paperback from both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. And if this scene makes you queasy, you might not want to read this book. Because this is just the beginning.
Fast forward almost 30 years to the summer of 1958. Richard, now married with five children, lives with his family in Creek Manor, the same house where those unspeakable events took place so long ago. It is still his mother’s house. She still lives there, too. Rosemary Creek is, in fact, the Lady of the Manor. And she is as evil a woman as has ever tainted the pages of literature. This is the story of Richard, his wife Helen, and their five teenage children: twin daughters Hilary and Taylor, Kimberly, and sons Reginald and Brock. They live under the ever-present dark cloud of her iron dominance and pernicious manipulation of everyone. Add a supporting cast of butler, friends, relatives, and neighbors who live in the poison shadow of this wealthy family matriarch, and it is a tale of three generations of dirty family secrets and lies – including incest, infidelity and murder – in grand old southern style. Except nothing is secret from Rosemary. She seems almost omniscient. She knows what everyone does and where everyone goes. She knows what people will do before they do it. She knows everyone’s secrets, from Kimberly’s hidden stash of trashy novels to Reginald and Brock frequenting a local whorehouse. And she uses these secrets as blackmail – yes, against her own progeny – to retain her control over everyone within her sphere of influence. Will the family – and practically all of Savannah, through which her inimical tendrils seem to slither endlessly – ever be rid of her foul, noxious influence? Or will they discover her better nature and coax her, by degrees, to change into a lovable mother and grandmother?
Adrian Heflin has created a compelling and memorable, although loathsome, antagonist in his principle and titular character, Rosemary Creek. She is shockingly cruel to everyone. She is vicious and stone-hearted virtually through and through. She cares for no one, and is ruthless and insulting to everyone. Because love is weakness. Kindness is weakness. Knowledge is power. Control is through fear. There is no treachery or debauchery of which this woman is not capable. Really. You’ll be surprised. Her character is easily the strongest and most dominant in the book, and, although not multi-dimensional, very well drawn. (In this, I was reminded of Cathy in East of Eden. If evil had a face, and it was female, then this is it.)
To a greater or lesser degree the other characters are well drawn. The most likable and best developed are the three daughters. They are typical sisters, arguing and picking at one another, but they are all sweet in their own way. The author takes care to sculpt each girl carefully. Their scenes are some of the most enjoyable in the book, and this is partly because they are so distinctively portrayed. Their love interests and the accompanying dialogue feel real and natural. Their conflicts with grandmother are tense, caustic, and uncomfortable. The two sons are well developed as well, but to a lesser degree; their characters become slightly less interesting as the story progresses. The mother, Helen, is not a standout character.
I was disappointed with the portrayal of the father, Richard. It is not until the last few chapters that he comes into his own and we get a chance to know him. Until then, he remains shrouded by his cigar smoke, so to speak, and we are left wondering who he really is. It’s not that he’s weak and dominated by his iron-fisted mother. He just “isn’t.” A chance is lost to create an intriguing and conflicted character – one who has been subjected to horrors at the hand of his own mother, bears the concomitant emotional and psychological scars, but at the same time must be strong enough to protect his own family from a similar fate. Richard remains an emerging silhouette, a mid-stage character through much of this book. He could have been so much more.
Other characters – relatives, friends, boyfriends, neighbors, townsfolk – are adequately handled; some are painted with more careful brushstrokes than others. Extended family relationships are described in some detail, and it becomes a bit confusing trying to keep track of uncles, aunts, cousins, in-laws, etc. But since this is a story built around a family and their many skeletons in the closet, I felt compelled to try to figure out and remember which closet each respective relative and skeleton belongs in. This was a bit distracting.
The plot is mostly well handled, with needed information added by degrees. Admittedly, some plot elements were, for me, a little hard to swallow. The pacing picks up in the last quarter of the book, as it should, and as the story moves to the climax, it becomes harder to put down and walk away from. The ending is satisfying if not a bit unrealistic, as all the loose ends are tied up, but perhaps just a bit too tidily.
Mechanically, there are a few errors. There are more than a few misplaced and unnecessary commas and a misspelled word or two. Overall, though, it is relatively problem free. Mr. Heflin’s writing is not overly impressive or creative, but it is also not distractingly bad. It gets the job done. I saw flashes of very good descriptive writing, but these are few and far between. It’s a very dialogue-rich story and, thankfully, he writes dialogue well; it flows easily and naturally. In at least one instance the narrative switches to second person perspective, which feels amateurish.
This is not a pleasant story, but it is not wholly unsatisfying. We don’t see the better side of most of the characters until relatively late in the narrative. Overall, the story is well written and well told. This book would appeal to anyone who likes stories spanning several generations, with all the accompanying buried and dirty family secrets. There are elements of strained race relations with the expected vocabulary (it is Georgia in the 1950s, after all) and a definite southern atmosphere is evoked. It’s not suitable for children; there is frequent sexual activity including rape and, as mentioned, some pedophilia, although the descriptions are not too graphic. I think there were missed opportunities to more deeply explore some of the characters, and the writing, while an adequate vehicle to transport the story, is not impressively good. For these reasons, I rate Lady of the Manor 3 out of 4 stars.
Lady of the Manor
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