Remember reading Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” when you were younger and loving it? So did novelist Cassandra King, and now she has written her own Gothic tale involving a new bride whose curiosity about a first wife threatens to uncover more than she wants to know.
The early September release of “Moonrise” was timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the publication of “Rebecca,” but this time the setting is the Blue Ridge Mountains. Moonrise is the name of the gloomy Victorian mansion in the Highlands community of North Carolina that serves a vacation destination for newlyweds Helen and Emmet. The couple met at a Fort Lauderdale television station, where Emmet was hired as the star anchor. They initially try to resist the sparks flying between them; Emmet lost his beloved wife Rosalyn less than a year earlier in a mysterious accident.
Helen, host of a cooking show, has her own reasons to approach a relationship slowly. Rebuilding her life after divorce, she drops bits of earnest wisdom: “During my childhood, I’d learned that life could bring you to your knees. In middle age, I was finding that you didn’t have to stay there.”
The couple’s attraction is stronger than their resistance, and they quickly marry. Emmet’s gruff affection for Helen reveals itself in the way he calls her by her surname, Honeycutt. And Helen is so vulnerable, so eager to please Emmet and his friends, it’s easy to understand why he’s fallen hard.
When the newlyweds leave Fort Lauderdale for their Highlands summer home, trouble crops up in the form of Emmet’s circle of upper-crust friends. Tansy, Kit, Noel and Linc are concerned – if not downright offended – by Emmet’s quick plunge into matrimony with a dietitian. (Can you hear the sarcasm in their moneyed voices as they refer to such a mundane career?) The most likable of these is Linc, a gentle professor who has devoted his life to the study of butterflies. He recently experienced a stroke. His illness, in conjunction with Rosalyn’s death, has left the friends feeling unsettled.
As Helen tries to win over Emmet’s friends, she struggles to sort out truth from lies. Who among them is being honest and straightforward, and who is trying to undermine the couple’s new marriage?
Because several characters narrate the novel, the reader often knows more than Helen, creating tension and suspense. When alone, Tansy and Kit cattily refer to Helen as “the Bride.” In Helen’s presence, they are unpredictable, dishing out stinging wisecracks and gestures of friendship with equal regularity. Though they hold Helen in special disdain, the people in Emmet’s crowd also are duplicious with one another.
As the summer wears on, Helen wonders whether Moonrise and its gardens – where Rosalyn’s ashes are buried – are haunted. What really happened the night Rosalyn died, and will Helen and Emmet’s marriage survive if the truth is unearthed?
Though darker than King’s other novels, “Moonrise” succeeds at what she does best: masterfully weaving a story with threads that bind some characters together while pulling other strands loose. “Moonrise” dives into the waters of women’s friendships with the same level of honesty readers admire in Margaret Atwood’s “Cat’s Eye” and “The Robber Bride.”
“Moonrise” further cements King’s high standing as a writer of contemporary women’s fiction. Previous novels include “The Sunday Wife,” “The Same Sweet Girls,” “Making Waves,” and “The Queen of Hearts.” A native of Alabama, she lives in the South Carolina Lowcountry with her husband, novelist Pat Conroy.