26 November 2012

Book Review: The Mill River Recluse by Darcie Chan

"Disfigured by the blow of an abusive husband, the widow Mary McAllister has spent almost sixty years secluded in a white marble mansion overlooking the town of Mill River, Vermont. Her links to the outside world are few: the mail, an elderly priest, and a bedroom window with a view of the town below.

Most longtime residents of Mill River consider the marble house and its occupant peculiar, and few of them have ever seen Mary. But three newcomers - a police officer and his daughter and a new schoolteacher - are curious about the reclusive old woman. Only the town priest truly knows the Mill River recluse, and the secret she keeps . . . a secret that, once revealed, will change the town, and the lives of its residents, forever."

Rating: 4.5/5

I have to admit that I have been curious about this book for a while now. It's a self-published novel that has managed to be a huge success, and has also featured on the New York Times and USA Today Bestseller Lists, something previously unheard of for a self-published novel. It was an eBook only release for a long while but in the UK, publishers Little, Brown picked it up for publication over here, and it was released last week. I have to say it was the cover that initially swung my mind into reading it, as I'd read a few reviews that said it was a bit too sickly and sweet and obvious, but to be honest, I don't mind that at all in books, it's kind of nice to escape to a world where nice things happen!

Mary McAllister has spent much of her life hidden away in her beautiful big house in Mill River. She was abused by her husband, and after a devastating blow left her facially disfigured, she became too frightened to ever leave the house, instead relying on her local priest Father O'Brien to be her lifeline to the outside world. Few people have ever met Mary, and only one knows the secret that Mary has been keeping from the residents of Mill River for a long time. As Mary's health detoriates, she wants to make sure that the town she loves is well looked after but doesn't know how to go about it from the self-imposed prison that is her marital home. What is the secret that Marry is keeping which will change Mill River in ways that they never could have dreamed possible?

As I said, a lot of reviewers have said that this book is a little too saccharin for them, but I have to admit that I really loved it. There was something ultimately quite cosy about the book, and I was soon drawn into the world of Mill River, and its residents. Yes, I could guess how it would all end and I guessed correctly, but it didn't seem to matter. It was a harmless and enjoyable book, and leaves you full of good feeling by the end, and that you know there are good people left in the world. I really enjoyed the way that Chan tells the story through two different narratives, one of Mary and the Mill River residents in the present day, and alternates that with Mary's own story as she's growing up, and how she came to be the recluse that she is.

I found the characters of this book to be interesting. The main ones in the book are Mary and Father O'Brien, but the residents of Mill River are a very important part of this book too. We meet Kyle, the new town policeman and his daughter, the new schoolteacher in town Claudia, "crazy" Daisy who loves brewing homemade potions in her caravan, Lyle the other policeman about town amongst others. I enjoyed reading their stories as much as I did Mary's. Kyle in particular was someone I really liked, the perfect man in many ways and the fact he's a widower makes him a little more likeable in a way! Yes, things happen that aren't so good for these people, but it just adds to tension a little bit, although as I say it was a tad predictable as it went along.

Mary's past story was perhaps the most interesting bit of this book for me, I really looked forward to finding out the things that happened to make Mary the recluse she is today. Chan attempts to go into some detail about Mary's 'Social Anxiety Disorder', and we do a good feeling about how Mary feels when she attempts to leave the house. Reading about her doomed marriage to Patrick, and her love for her horses in quite emotional, and I kept reading dreading what was going to happen next. I felt incredibly sorry for Mary and was desperate for her to overcome her fears, and it's a heart-wrenching journey that this character goes on. The setting for the book of Mill River is perfect, a sleepy quiet town with a small amount of residents, and Chan describes it so well through her writing, it comes to life in your mind as you're reading. The story keeps up a good pace, and I didn't find it slacking at all, although I thought a little twist towards the end was a little unnecessary and didn't seem to fit in and I wouldn't have missed it if it wasn't there!

I thought The Mill River Recluse was a really charming read, and I enjoyed reading it from start to finish. There was something about it that really drew me into reading it, and I was carried away with the story of Mary and her life as a recluse, and wishing only good things for her. It isn't the best written book in the world, don't get me wrong, but it is very enjoyable. There are enough characters to make it interesting, but not too many that you can't keep track. There's a few interesting sub-stories in here to keep up the pace which were good, but it's really Mary's story that is the heart and soul of the book. I really loved it, yes it's sweet and predictable but for me that was part of its charm. A lovely debut novel, and I look forward to Chan's next book which will also be set in Mill River. One to curl up with this winter.

You can buy The Mill House Recluse as a paperback or an eBook now.

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