Author: Simone St James
Genre: Historical, Romance, Ghost story
Publisher: NAL Trade
Publication date: March 6 2012
Paperback: 318 pages
Sarah Piper’s lonely, threadbare existence changes when her temporary agency sends her to assist a ghost hunter. Alistair Gellis – rich, handsome, scarred by World War I, and obsessed with ghosts – has been summoned to investigate the spirit of nineteen-year-old Maddy Clare, who is haunting the barn where she committed suicide. Since Maddy hated men in life, it is Sarah’s task to confront her in death.
Soon Sarah is caught up in a desperate struggle. For Maddy’s ghost is real, she’s angry, and she has powers that defy all reason. Can Sarah and Alistair’s assistant, the rough, unsettling Matthew Ryder, discover who Maddy was, where she came from, and what is driving her desire for vengeance – before she destroys them all?
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did we get this book: Thea got a review copy from the publisher, Ana bought her copy
Why did we read this book: Thea was supposed to be reviewing this solo after we received a review request. Ana jumped on the wagon when she realised it was a historical novel set in the early 20s (i.e. after Thea shook some sense into Ana).
Ana: Thea was supposed to be doing a solo review of The Haunting of Maddy Clare but then last week I was having a moan about not wanting to read any of the books on my TBR and then Thea was like, “What do you want to read dude” and I was like, “I think I am in the mood for a historical novel, possibly Horror as well. Maybe.” and she was like, “Dudette, why don’t you read Maddy Clare with me” and I looked it up and it was a historical novel with GHOSTS and I was like “OMG, I am so in”.1 So yes, The Haunting of Maddy Clare was exactly what I wanted to read and on that front, it completely delivered. It was that sort of comfortable read, the cosy mystery I was looking for but it does have many flaws. But more on that below.
Thea: Actually, Ana is misrepresenting the conversation. Yes, she was having a moan about the lackluster books she was reading, and then I basically had to pitch and sell her on Maddy Clare – which she had earlier said she’d pass on, for lord knows whatever reason – pointing out that the novel is: 1. Post-WWI historical; 2. Gothic in nature with a ghostly haunting, and; 3. Topped off with a romantic subplot. AND THEN, after selling her on this, Ana finally realizes that – HELLO! – this has her name written all over it (far more than it has mine). She woke up and smelled the proverbial coffee. Hence, the joint review. I went into The Haunting of Maddy Clare expecting an engaging ghost story, a mystery, set against an effective historical backdrop with a touch of romance, and I’m happy to say that the novel delivers (with only a few reservations).
On the Plot:
Ana: Sarah Piper is a modern woman living in London in the aftermath of World War I, doing the odd secretarial job. When a temp agency offers her the opportunity to work for the dashing Alistair Gellis, she takes upon the offer – only to realise, perhaps too late, that her new job requires her to go ghost hunting. Alistair is an academic writer, researching haunted places in England and his newest case – the man-hating ghost of a young servant called Maddy Clare – requires the assistance of a woman. The two travel together to the small village of Waringstoke where they will investigate the haunted barn where Maddy appears and where they are joined later by Alistair’s assistance Matthew Ryder. At first, Sarah is doubtful that ghosts really exist but to her dismay (and terror) Maddy makes a horrific appearance and is able to form a connection with Sarah. It is then that Sarah learns why Maddy is angry and in search of revenge and she has no choice but to help the ghost lest they all become victims of her wrath.
I am rather conflicted about this book and how to write this review. On the one hand, I read this in one sitting and for the most part it was an enjoyable cozy, fun read. I loved the historical setting (as superficial as it was) and Sarah, the main character, was an interesting heroine. My first act as soon as I finished reading it was to write down: “competent cozy mystery, a historical ghost story with a side of romance, recommend with reservations”. It wasn’t until later that I started to realise that it had its share of problems. In fact, as I write this review, as I reflect on it, the more I find to criticise. Do you know, I truly hate when that happens, but alas.
In terms of plot, The Haunting of Maddy Clare is quite straightforward: a ghost story mixed with the mystery behind Maddy’s short life. Her story is of that sort that involves small-town horrors and the mystery was fairly predictable: I was able to guess the culprits very early on. The ghost was suitably scary though and Maddy’s back story was quite sad. My main gripe is perhaps the setting: although I love readings stories set in the early twenties but beyond a few mentions of clothes and to the mores of the era, there isn’t anything really vivid about the setting – this story could have been set at any point in time.
There is also a heavy focus on a romance that develops between Sarah and Matthew and that was so underdeveloped as to be almost random (but more on that below).
Thea: I agree with Ana’s initial assessment – this is a wholly competent and engaging novel, and I most enjoyed the experience of losing myself in The Haunting of Maddy Clare. Traditional ghost stories are not my favorite subgenre of horror – not by a long shot – but when they are done well, I can be completely won over (see Michelle Paver’s phenomenal Dark Matter or Susan Hill’s deliciously terrifying The Woman in Black). In the case of Maddy Clare, all of the right elements are in place. As the novel progresses and Sarah, Alistair, and Matthew conduct their investigation of the haunting, readers learn the truth behind the tragic, horrific mystery of young Maddy’s past. The horror elements, steeped in the nature of Molly’s haunt fueled her rage and fear are expertly written. It is this mystery, of Molly’s past and what she wants, that drives the novel – at least, in my opinion.
Layered on top of the ghostly haunting is the narrative of our intrepid temporary secretary heroine, Sarah Piper, and the different challenges she faces in a post-war world. Work has dried up, and as a woman without family or means, Sarah’s reality is a meager and brutal one. Though I do agree with Ana that the historical setting could have been replaced with any different era, I did like the touches that were unique to the early 1920s and how the time period shaped the experiences and perceptions of the different characters. Sarah is a modern girl in that she cares for herself and is self-employed in a non-servant position, there is this tension between what is acceptable and respected, versus the newer, bolder evolving world. There’s also the legacy of war and how it has affected Alistair and Ryder, which I think was done very well by Ms. St. James.
There is a degree of predictability regarding the plot, but I am not so bothered by this as The Haunting of Maddy Clare is not really about twists or surprises; rather, it’s a book about the characters and their own stories.
On the Characters:
Ana: Apart from Maddy Clare herself, I find myself reconsidering my thoughts about the characters.
At first glance, this is exactly the sort of read I tend to like. There were things I absolutely loved Sarah’s character: she is that type of quiet, introvert heroine that is struggling to find a place in the world. She thinks of herself as independent and modern and for the most part, she truly is finding her voice, not to mention becoming sexually aware.
Having said that, even though I had the feeling that this is supposed to be a feminist read, the text itself, kept coming back at me with these essentialist quotes about what it’s like to be a woman – how emotional they can be; how only a woman can know about the feeling a favourite piece of clothing, etc – which made me pause.
There was definitely something incongruous about how Sarah is portrayed and how she is developed. For example, at the beginning she muses about she is the sort of woman who must worry about her reputation, who can’t be free to do all she pleases. There is a lot of blushing when she meets Alistair and awkwardness because they must travel together. But then later on, there is a SURPRISE!REVELATION! in which we learn that Sarah has had several lovers after quick dates. And then she forgoes all about her worries with her reputation without a second to consider it and spends several nights sleeping with Matthew at a public Inn.
There is nothing wrong about her having sexually active life, of course. Far from it. The problem is how inconsistent her character presentation is.
The male characters are not developed much beyond their descriptions. Alistair is nice and debonair and Matthew – the romantic interest – is dark and brooding. Both have PTSD and that’s about it. The relationship that develops between Sarah and Matthew is completely clichéd – exactly the type that gives Romance a bad name, except the Romances I read are way better than this.
There is one particular scene that Thea and I have been talking about that we both felt was really problematic and even revolting. There was this really random, surprising sex scene in which Matthew basically walks into Sarah’s room one night, thrust himself into her, comes quickly and then leaves the room saying it wouldn’t happen again. Mind you: at that point the two had barely exchanged a word and Matthew even believed Sarah had a thing for Alastair.
Although Sarah was willing – he did not know that. He had no way of knowing that at that point. We only know that because we see narrative from Sarah’s point of view. I ask of you: isn’t that problematic? And yet, we are supposed to take it on a stride and understand that the poor little man had ISSUES because of the war. This is never truly addressed in the novel beyond Sarah worrying about not being good enough for him. SERIOUSLY.
Ok, I am working myself up.
Thea: So, I’m of two minds when it comes to characterizations. I truly loved our heroine, Sarah, for all of the reasons that Ana mentions. She’s not a stereotypically brash, stylish, cigarette-smoking flapper with nary a care in the world. Instead, our heroine is reserved, of small means and certainly not a fashionable paragon of roaring twenties’ sensibilities. That said, Sarah isn’t just some timid, meek woman. Rather, she is independent, and just as she describes herself: as a modern woman. I actually liked the revelation that she had her own encounters and trysts with men, and didn’t find it out of place with her character. Her arc – discovering what she wants and is capable of – is endearing and, to me, works.
What did not work, however, was the kind of icky, not-so-satisfying romance. As Ana mentions above, I didn’t believe in the attraction between Sarah and Ryder (really?! RYDER?!) – I am not a fan of the instant lust, nor am I a fan of repeated phrases that glorify Ryder’s stubbled jaw or broad shoulders or manly manliness. Added to that is the somewhat horrifying first sexual encounter between Ryder and Sarah, in which he steals into her bedroom in the middle of the night – without talking to her or knocking on her door – and roughly thrusts himself upon her. I have nothing against a late night booty call, or romantic passionate encounters, but the problematic thing with all of this is that Ryder had no real idea that Sarah wanted him or was willing. Especially in this book, given the ghostly Maddy Clare’s story, I felt like this was a jarring, incredibly disturbing development, and not romantic in the slightest.
I am a little more charitable when it comes to the development of male characters than Ana, however. I liked that both Alistair and Matthew have bonded over their time in the war together, and the very real stresses and issues they deal with in its aftermath. I feel like we get to know and understand Alistair, with his genteel appearance and easygoing manner, but with a lurking toughness and experience beneath that foppish exterior. In contrast, Matthew is lacking the same depth. We know he looks manly and dangerous, we know what he has suffered, and we know that Sarah has the hots for him almost immediately. And yet…as a character, he’s two-dimensional. Perhaps this is because of Sarah’s point of view narration, in which she is superficially drawn to his appearance and demeanor, so the book never really fully explores Matthew Ryder as a fully fleshed out character. In any case, I felt the overall experience…lacking.
Beyond this main trio, of course, we should not forget about Maddy Clare, her adopted family, or the various villagers with their own foibles, secrets, and pasts. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that I think this supporting cast – and Maddy herself, of course – are done convincingly well.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: The Haunting of Maddy Clare is that sort of read that is perfectly acceptable and nice as you are reading it. It is not until you are done with it that you go: WAIT A MINUTE. MAYBE THAT’S NOT REALLY AS GOOD AS I THOUGHT. In the end the best I could say is: I’ve read better, I’ve read worse. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, I know, but that’s that.
Thea: I’ve read better, but I’ve also read much, much worse, and overall my experience with Maddy Clare is a positive one. I enjoyed this book and can think of no better way to spend an afternoon if you’re looking for a quick, engaging historical novel with an effective ghost story. The only thing that didn’t work for me was the uncomfortable romance – but I don’t think that’s enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of the novel. Recommended, with reservations.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: From the excerpt:
The day I met Mr. Gellis, I had been walking in the rain.
In the morning, unable to face another day alone in my flat, I wandered through the bustle of Piccadilly, the collar of my thin coat pulled high on my neck. The air was swollen with cottony drizzle that did not quite fall to the ground, and pressed my cheeks and eyelashes. The lights of Piccadilly shone garishly under the lowering clouds; the shouts of the tourists were loud against the grim silence of the businesspeople and the murmurs of strolling couples in the square.
I stayed as long as I could, watching the bob of umbrellas. No one noticed a pale girl, with cropped hair under an inexpensive and unfashionable hat, her hands plunged in her pockets. Eventually, the mist resolved itself into rain and even I turned my reluctant steps home.
Though it was only noon, the sky was near dark when I opened the gate and hurried up the walk to my small and shabby boardinghouse. I climbed the narrow stairs to my room, shivering as the damp penetrated my stockings and numbed my legs. I was fumbling my key with chilled fingers and thinking of a cup of hot tea when the landlady called up the stairs that there was a telephone call for me.
I turned and descended again. It would be the temporary agency on the line – they were the only ones with my exchange. I had worked for them for nearly a year, and they sent me to one place or another to answer phones or transcribe notes in ill-lit, low-ceilinged offices. Still, the work had dried up in recent weeks, and I was painfully short of funds. How fortunate I was, of course. I would have missed their call had I come home only five minutes later.
In the first-floor hallway, the house’s only telephone sat on a small shelf, the receiver lying unhooked where the landlady had left it. I could already hear the echo of an impatient voice on the other end.
“Sarah Piper?” came a female voice as I raised the receiver to my ear. “Sarah Piper? Are you there?”
“I’m here,” I said. “Please don’t hang up.”
Ana: 5 – Meh
Thea: 6 – Recommended with Reservations
Reading Next: Peaceweaver by Rebecca Barnhouse
Buy the Book:
- This is an exact copy of our conversation. Now you know how we run this blog ↩