The Lake House
By Kate Morton
Atria. 495 pp. $28
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nolead ends In fiction, the outcome of the plot must surprise readers, but at the same time, it should seem inevitable. Australian novelist Kate Morton achieves this balance in her latest offering, The Lake House. This highly articulate book is a perfect read for the dark winter evenings ahead. Divided between the 1930s in Cornwall and 2003 in Cornwall and London, the narrative explores the relationships of three sisters among one another and with Eleanor, their beleaguered mother.
As the novel opens, it is 1933 and the wealthy Edevane family is throwing its annual lavish Midsummer party at Loeanneth, a lake cottage deep in a lush woods in the Cornwall countryside. The middle sister, Alice, is 16 and unwisely in love with Ben, the comely but older gardener. Morton describes Alice's happy state of mind: "intoxicated by an enticing sense of herself as a girl on the precipice of a glimmering future." But her happiness is destroyed when it is discovered that her 11-month-old brother, Theo, is missing from his crib and is nowhere to be found. After months of futile searching, the Edevanes leave Loeanneth for London. They will never return.
The setting vaults forward to 2003. Sadie Sparrow, a young detective, travels from her London flat to Cornwall to visit her grandfather. The now-abandoned Loeanneth is near her grandfather's residence, arousing Sadie's curiosity about the unsolved 70-year-old crime.
Skillfully, Morton intertwines the two plotlines. Alice, now 86, is a celebrated writer of crime novels. She lives comfortably, if not extravagantly, in London. Her devoted assistant, Peter, a young man with postgraduate degrees in comparative literature, begins to play a significant role in both plotlines.
Alice and older sister Deborah, nearly 90 in 2003, meet each year on the anniversary of their mother's death. "It made sense," asserts Morton, "to remember their parents formally on the same day. Theirs had been the sort of romance that writers trumpeted and real people envied." On one of these usually predictable outings, Deborah makes a baffling assertion: "Theo . . . I know what happened to him."
Though the novel's characters are all well drawn, it is Eleanor who seems most authentic, in her faithful caring for a husband still suffering grievously from shell-shock - the result of his action in World War I - and her genuine love for her children. Her courage and dignity after the loss of Theo is remarkable. Morton paints the character of Eleanor with such a sympathetic brush that readers will forgive a transgression she will commit.
Morton is a master of suspense, subtly planting questions in readers' minds and withholding answers. Moreover, she creates a marvelous "red-herring" story line featuring the Edevanes' former nanny, Rose. As the novel speeds to its conclusion, only one or two resolutions seem possible. But, delightfully, the author has fooled us.
Katherine Bailey is at katherinebaileyonbooks.com.