Is it possible to go home again? What if that home was the last place you saw your sisters before they vanished in the blink of an eye? Would you even want to? In Laura McHugh’s sophomore novel, Arrowood (August 9; Spiegel & Grau), those questions are asked of the title character as she finds herself thrust back into the mystery that stole her youth and her sisters.
A graduate student and history buff, Arden has only to complete her thesis in order to fulfill her university requirements. Easier said than done. Dealing with a romantic fallout with one of her professors, Arden’s bad luck continues when she receives word that her father has passed away, leaving her with the surprising inheritance of the house she was raised in: Arrowood. Located in Keokuk, Iowa, Arden’s heart has always belonged to Arrowood. Rich in history and owned by her family for generations, she jumps at the opportunity to start fresh in the home she loved and was forced away from as a little girl. Encouraged by her mother, who is remarried and born again, to sell the old mansion and finish her studies, Arden feels the pull of her childhood home and can’t help but return. Her arrival becomes the talk of the town and old memories stir, the worst of which brings her back to the tragic day her twin sisters, only two-years-old at the time, went missing. Never found and the only suspect still claiming his innocence, Arden has lived with the guilt of having taken her eyes off of them for one second. Now, back in Arrowood, she wonders: Can she finally find closure or will her sisters haunt her forever?
When she’s not walking the grounds of the house or trying, unsuccessfully, to find a job, Arden is reacquainting with old friends and making new ones. Ben, her next door neighbor, and childhood sweetheart, and his sister, Lauren, welcome Arden back with open arms. Their always-seems-to-be-watching-mother, Mrs. Ferris, is less enthusiastic, but offers Arden the chance to dive into the history she loves so much by bringing her in on a charity event for the town. Heaney, the caretaker of Arrowood, and overall generous guy promises to alway be a phone call away should anything go array in the house. And Josh, the owner of a true crime website who has been seeking to talk with Arden for years about her sisters, becomes her accidental investigative partner in digging up new evidence and suspects. But the deeper Arden digs, the more she uncovers. More than new suspects and evidence. She brings to light secret infidelities, forgotten truths, hidden connections, and the resurfacing of past feelings that urge her to recall her complicated life following the disappearance of her sisters. There’s even a little romance infused in the form of a subtle triangle that begs Arden to question whether she wants what her childhood self wanted or wants what her present self needs.
McHugh’s writing shines in the details of the title house and its surrounding locations. Her descriptions lend a hand to the reader, dropping them into the thick of the Iowa setting. The sticky humidity is felt along the rim of the pages and the creaking floorboards Arden hears echo in the back of your head. Are the ghosts of Arden’s sisters walking the halls at night or is she just hearing things? Could they still be alive, living a whole new life, unaware of the sister who continues to love and think about them everyday? These inquires plague Arden throughout the novel, pushing her into an otherwise solitary existence that is broken by the occasional outsider desperate to escort her back into the realm of possibility.
As for the mystery of who took the twins and what happened to them, McHugh offers a handful of the typical red herrings, as one should provide in a story such as Arrowood. Author Lee Child wrote that he guessed four different times of who he believed the culprit behind the girls’ disappearance was. He was wrong on all four accounts. The greatest achievement a mystery can achieve is to leave the readers guessing until the truth comes pouring out. McHugh does that. And not just until the reveal. She has you second guessing yourself until the very last page, where, if you’re not thinking, “WTF?” then you missed something.
In all, Arrowood is the story of a young woman, who though is presented to the world as a grown up, has to go back home in order to continue growing up. It is not only a mystery, but a coming-of-age tale. Both come with satisfying conclusions, in style and execution. Arden is a character you can feel for and root for. You want her to learn the truth, for her own sake as well as yours. The disappearance of her sisters left a hole in her heart, in her life. And while it may never be filled, it can still fight and love. Arden represents the hope in tragedy. She is not without guilt or faults, but she is persevering. I was a fan of McHugh’s debut novel, The Weight of Blood, and I am a fan of Arrowood. Suffice it to say I am a fan of Laura McHugh and I can’t wait to see what she brings to the table next.