MOONRISE. By Cassandra King. Maiden Lane Press. 384 pages. $26.95.
Cassandra King’s new novel “Moonrise” is both something familiar, like a well-loved leather recliner, and a writer’s mind game, which challenges the reader to keep up with sentences, plot and characters.
King, in her fifth novel to date, draws on the Southern gothic in her nod to Daphne du Maurier’s thriller, “Rebecca.”
She says in the endnotes of the book that she was reading the 75-year-old best-seller at an old home in the mountains of North Carolina. She stumbled on the grave of the owner one day in her explorations, and it sparked the idea as she wondered who the woman was and how she died. Add love, divorce and jealousy, and King had the mix for a good autumn read.
DuMaurier’s book turns on the fact that there is a recent marriage between a bereft widower and his new bride arriving in his ancestral home. The bride must compete with the housekeeper, who constantly compares her with the previous lady of the house — with negative results — and she worries over her new husband’s affections.
King uses this time-honored plot but switches it up for the modern age. Instead of a housekeeper, it is the heroine’s own insecurities and her new husband’s circle of friends creating the tension.
King takes a Florida girl in Helen Honeycutt, who is getting her life back on track after a bad divorce, and weaves in her marriage with the very southern Emmet Justice, a CNN reporter who is still grieving for his recently deceased wife, Rosalyn. The newlyweds decide to summer at Moonrise, Rosalyn’s historic estate in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Moonrise is known for its unique nocturnal gardens, which have fallen into ruin since the death of its mistress, and provide the suitably spooky moonlit atmosphere that makes this novel work.
Descriptions of the beauty of a summer in the mountains resonates with readers who have seen the ghostly mists that descend without notice.
Then there is the peek into the lives of the elite society people of the mountains, those who have had large homes in families for generations and come back from June to Labor Day year after year. They have grown up and grown older with each other, and they harbor family secrets.
There is a sense of Helen’s isolation from them since the reader is in the same position.
The tour de force of writing comes from King’s choice of voice. Each chapter is written in the first person, but from the perspective of a different character. It’s a device that is at first confusing. Chapter headings alert the reader that the character has changed, but it’s hard to keep the characters straight and the constantly changing landscape of women’s voices make it challenging to follow the story.
King attempted to use varied grammar and description to illustrate each voice, but the characters tend to blur together as the action of the book advances.
The good part is that the plot moves along, and there are enough twists to make it a satisfying Southern read, with men and women the reader feels could be met along the small street in Highlands, or overhear their conversations at the local watering hole.
King gives us a look at summer in Cashiers with an old-fashioned novel that twists on the best plot themes of all: obsession, jealousy and greed.
Reviewer Stephanie Harvin is a staff writer and editor with The Post and Courier.