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by Emily Arsenault
William Morrow, January 2016
400 pages
ISBN: 0062379313

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In the late 19th century, a young and nervous New England woman named Frances Barnett marries a stable lawyer, Matthew, and adopts the persona of the perfect housewife. When she finds herself with child, the already skittish Frances becomes preoccupied with what she considers the near-certain fate of imminent death.

Abby Bernacki is taking a sabbatical from her job as a history teacher to nurse her five-month old daughter, Lucy and to care for the historic Victorian house that she and her husband Chad have just purchased in small-town Connecticut. When Lucy starts developing disturbing and unexplainable bruises, Abby is sure she is hearing the whispers of a strange woman in the house; whether she is losing her mind staying home with Lucy or being haunted by a ghost, she knows that her concerned, but distant husband Chad is unlikely to understand.

Abby, with her background as a history teacher guiding her, starts to investigate the previous tenants of her historic home; she befriends a couple of local history buffs and eventually stumbles upon the journal of Frances Barnett—a woman clearly disturbed with a preoccupation with a grisly murder trial in the 19th century and an interest in acquiring a vial of arsenic. Piecing together clues from the journal and newspaper clippings, Abby learns that Frances was committed to a Massachusetts asylum.

THE EVENING SPIDER, which alternates between and eventually intertwines these two stories in alternating chapters, is the story of two New England women finding their sanity being questioned as they come to terms with being new mothers, but there is more than a well-wrought ghost story going on here. While the two women live in very different times, and Frances' situation is decidedly more extreme, they are both women dealing with feelings of being deserted by their caring, but distant and career-obsessed husbands just as they venture into the uncertain world of motherhood.

Although this tale may be closer to a ghost story with historical and literary overtones than a proper mystery, it should be said that any ghost story with otherwise rational characters is a bit of a mystery. As we watch Abby trying to unravel both what is going on in her house and what happened to Frances, and just why she was committed, the novel deals with just as many unknowns and moments of suspense as your finest whodunit. Arsenault tells her story in short chapters that alternate between the two storylines, a technique that unfortunately blunts the momentum of Abby's story at key points. Since Frances' storyline is more compact and is told entirely through diary entries and newspaper clippings, it is a bit less gripping than Abby's more immediate story.

All told, THE EVENING SPIDER is a largely successful attempt to bring the New England ghost story to life once again, and uses its engaging storyline to give the reader much to ponder in terms of the ramifications of these two women's journey. Overlapping into several genres, Arsenault has woven a tale that should connect with readers of various interests and should find its way into its fair share of book clubs.

§ Ben Neal is a librarian who likes to fancy himself an amateur writer, humorist, detective, and coffee connoisseur in his spare time. He can be reached at beneneal@indiana.edu.

Reviewed by Ben Neal, January 2016

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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