November Read of the Month: “Moonrise,” by Cassandra King

Cassandra King

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Remember reading Daphne DuMarier’s Rebecca when you were younger and loving it? So did acclaimed novelist Cassandra King, and now she has written her own gothic tale of a new bride whose curiosity about a first wife might uncover more than she wants to know.

The release of Moonrise on September 3 was timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the publication of Rebecca.

Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Moonrise takes its title from the gloomy Victorian mansion that serves as a summer place for the newlyweds. When Helen and Emmet first meet at the Fort Lauderdale TV station where they work, they try to resist the sparks flying between them. Emmet lost his beloved wife Rosalyn less than a year earlier in a tragic and mysterious accident. After her death, Emmet chooses to leave behind his job as a highly regarded CNN anchor for the smaller TV station in Florida.

Helen has her own reasons for wanting to approach a relationship slowly. Rebuilding her life after divorce, she is admirable for overcoming her fear of the camera to launch a show demonstrating healthy cooking techniques. She also drops the occasional bit of wisdom that makes you certain she would be a worthy friend if she suddenly hopped off the page: “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.”

But Emmet and Helen’s attraction is far stronger than their resistance, and they quickly marry. Emmet’s gruff and grudging 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, that it’s easy to understand why he’s fallen hard for the cooking show host.

When the newlyweds leave Lauderdale for a summer vacation in Highlands, North Carolina, trouble crops up in the form of Emmet and Rosalyn’s former circle of uppercrust friends. Tansy, Kit, Noel, and Linc are concerned—if not downright offended—by Emmet’s quick plunge into matrimony with a dietician. (Can you hear the sarcasm in their moneyed voices as they refer to such a mundane career?) The most likeable 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 Emmet’s friends over, she struggles to understand his first marriage and to sort out truth from lies. Who among Emmet’s friends is honest and straightforward—and which are trying to undermine their marriage?

Because Moonrise is narrated by several characters, the reader often knows more than Helen. When alone, Tansy and Kit cattily refer to Helen as “the Bride.” In Helen’s presence, they are unpredictable, dishing out stinging wisecracks and pretense of friendship with equal regularity. Though Helen is held in special disdain, those in Emmet’s crowd can be just as duplicitous and unkind to each other. Anyone who has attended a large gathering will recognize the delicious hypocrisy of guests, who become “mellow with wine” and act as if they have never “harbored an unkind thought toward the other.”

One refreshing and distinctive voice belongs to Willa, the housekeeper for the wealthy summer visitors to the Highlands. Willa quickly pegs the hostility of Emmet’s daughter Annie toward her stepmother Helen as foolish: “Seems to me that the more people we love, the more we have to love us back.”

Willa also offers keen insight into the drought that the South is experiencing that summer: “The governor’s been asking everybody to pray for rain. The Lord’s liable to tell us we can’t keep on using up everything he gave us, then holding out our hands for more.” King builds layers of meaning onto the drought: several characters muse that if only it would rain, perhaps the tension between the relationships would ease.

Willa’s commonsense extends to everything but her own relationship with an abusive boyfriend. This ability to craft nuanced characters is one of King’s gifts as a writer. If those rich summer residents seem snobby one minute, King shows their kindness the next.

As the summer wears on, the gardens at Moonrise are nearly restored to their earlier glory when the white flowers glow once again on moonlit nights. But are the mansion and garden where Rosalyn’s ashes are buried haunted? What really happened the night Rosalyn died—and will Helen and Emmet’s marriage survive if the truth is unearthed?

Though darker and more mysterious than King’s other novels, Moonrise succeeds at what King always does best: masterfully weaving a story with threads that bind some characters together while pulling other strands loose. The joy of reading her novels lies in learning which relationships will survive and which will not. Moonrise dives into the treacherous waters of women’s friendships with the same level of honesty readers have admired in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride.

Moonrise further cements King’s standing as one of the finest writers of serious contemporary women’s fiction. Previous novels include The Sunday Wife, The Same Sweet Girls, Making Waves, and The Queen of Hearts. A native of lower Alabama, she lives in the Low Country of South Carolina with her husband, novelist Pat Conroy.

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