Reviewed by Donna Meredith
Charlotte’s Story (Pegasus Crime, 2015), by Laura Benedict, takes your classic Southern gothic novel and spices it up a notch with a whodunit. If you like gothic and mystery, this spooky tale is sure to entertain. The story takes place in 1957 in Old Gate, Virginia, on a picturesque estate complete with orchards, woods, and a mansion furnished with stately antiques.
Although the Charlotte mentioned in the title serves as protagonist, Bliss House pushes itself center stage in this story. When Charlotte marries Preston Bliss, they seem to have everything a couple could ask for, including two beautiful children, Ava and Michael. They move into the Bliss mansion with Press’s kindly but distant mother Olivia, who soon dies. Understandable. Olivia was, after all, aging and not well. The staff of Bliss House, particularly Terrance, the enigmatic butler, and Marlene, the housekeeper and cook, carry on with their duties, but Press is shaken when he learns his mother left only half the estate to him, the other half to Charlotte.
The first scene takes place two months after Olivia’s death. In a moment of romantic seduction, Michael persuades Charlotte to get tipsy on champagne. Hours later she wakes up on the sofa to discover her best friend Rachel leaning over her, teary eyed. Charlotte’s three-year-old daughter Ava is dead, drowned in the bathtub while Charlotte was passed out. Was Charlotte simply neglectful? Or had she murdered her own daughter, the way some townspeople suspect? Has Charlotte gone quite mad?
These and other questions set our heroine on a path to uncover the truth. After all, what three year old tries to give herself a bath? Why did the child have on muddy shoes and a blue hair ribbon Charlotte had never seen before?
Soon other discrepancies nag at her. Dennis, a local policeman, claims he saw Charlotte and Press turn up the driveway to Bliss House in a hurry the day Ava died. Then he suggests Charlotte is not “someone who would leave a couple of little kids alone in that house.” As Charlotte considers this, she decides it must have been Press and Rachel the policeman had seen, since she had not left the sofa. But it also occurs to her that Dennis had emphasized “that house,” in a peculiar way.
Events at Bliss House only get stranger. Not only Ava’s ghost, but also Olivia’s appear to Charlotte. Her mother-in-law seems to be trying to reveal some secret—but what? Charlotte discovers a “dangerously narrow wood-and-iron stairway” that someone had fallen from years before, according to town rumors. From the corner of her eye, she spots a furtive fox-like creature darting through the house. Several times hours disappear, unaccounted for—more evidence Charlotte is dangerous to herself and others? She isn’t sure.
Press behaves in ways Charlotte simply can’t comprehend. He invites another woman to stay at Bliss House, one of his theater friends. How could he want to remodel the theater in Bliss House right after Ava’s death? Isn’t he grieving for his lost child? The difference in the way grief affects them alters their relationship. Even when Charlotte feels herself begin to respond to him emotionally or sexually, she refuses to be pulled out of her grief.
Compounding matters, Charlotte’s father is hospitalized after a hit-and-run accident. She wants to go to him, but is afraid if she leaves now, Ava’s ghost may never return and Charlotte couldn’t bear losing this last remnant of her child forever.
But then little Michael disappears. If Charlotte wants to save her son, she must distinguish friends from enemies and unravel the truth about Bliss House. Time is running out, and nothing at Bliss House is quite what it seems.
Charlotte’s Story continues Laura Benedict’s series of dark suspense novels, including The Abandoned Heart and Bliss House. A Cincinnati, Ohio native, Benedict grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and claims both as hometowns. She currently lives with her family in the southern wilds of a Midwestern state, surrounded by bobcats, coyotes, and other less picturesque predators.
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