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Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin

Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin
Pub. Date: June 6, 2017
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (Thank you, Bloomsbury!)
Summary: After his mother’s death, eleven-year-old Marcus is sent to live on a small South Carolina island with his great aunt, a reclusive painter with a haunted past. Aunt Charlotte, otherwise a woman of few words, points out a ruined cottage, telling Marcus she had visited it regularly after she’d moved there thirty years ago because it matched the ruin of her own life. Eventually she was inspired to take up painting so she could capture its utter desolation.

The islanders call it Grief Cottage because a boy and his parents disappeared from it during a hurricane fifty years before. Their bodies were never found and the cottage has stood empty ever since. During his lonely hours while Aunt Charlotte is in her studio painting and keeping her demons at bay, Marcus visits the cottage daily, building up his courage by coming ever closer, even after the ghost of the boy who died seems to reveal himself. Full of curiosity and open to the unfamiliar and uncanny given the recent upending of his life, he courts the ghost boy, never certain whether the ghost is friendly or follows some sinister agenda.
Genre: Fiction, Contemporary, Coming of Age

Eleven-year-old Marcus has dealt with his share of disappointment and heartache. His single mom is struggling to make ends meet, bouncing around and ‘downsizing’ (as she puts it) with each move. He ruined his friendship with Wheezer, beat him to the point where it wasn’t clear if the boy would even survive. Seeing as how Marcus’s mother worked for the company owned by Wheezer’s family…yet another move is in their future. Despite their serious penny-pinching, Marcus and his mother live the best life they can, until the night of the car accident, the night the one person Marcus has in the world is swiftly and brutally ripped from him.

The only relative left is an elderly aunt Marcus has never met. Still, she’s appointed his guardian, and he’s escorted through airport gates to a new life on a South Carolina island. Aunt Charlotte is an artist, painting landscapes for those willing to pay, and there’s one cottage in particular that captivates tourists above all others: Grief Cottage. Half a century ago, a hurricane tore through the town and the family who lived in the home were assumed to have been swept out to sea. Naturally Marcus is fascinated – especially once he gets close enough to the ruins and feels an eerie presence.

Don’t go into Grief Cottage expecting an action-packed, edge-of-your-seat ride. That’s not what this book is, nor what it tries to be. When I was in high school, I was a huge anime fan and my favorite genre was known as slice of life. These shows were based in reality (sorry, no giant robots here!) and featured easygoing, meandering plots that were in no rush to get to where they were going. Grief Cottage reminded me of those shows as it tells the story of a little boy and the summer he spent on an island. There’s artwork, turtle hatching, finding a father-figure in a neighbor who has a taste for vintage cars.

While I love a good slow plot, one thing I was not a fan of was the ghost element. Take a second to read the book’s summary. It certainly sounds like this will be a ghost story, right? That’s definitely what I thought and was disheartened to discover that wasn’t the case at all. There are maybe three sightings of the dead boy throughout the entire novel and most of that arc surrounds Marcus’s desire to find out who the family was. While every other person involved with the hurricane is name-dropped in all the newspaper articles and novels Marcus can find from that time, the three out-of-towners who perished are merely glossed over. I would have loved to see more of this boy and watch his character develop.

Grief Cottage is a moody, atmospheric novel that certainly held me captive despite not being quite what I expected. Unfortunately, the blurb builds up the ghost element a bit too much, when in actuality, the sightings hardly amount to more than a few pages’ worth. I did notice several threads that trailed off (including the go-nowhere possible alcoholic turn of one character) and hopefully those loose ends will be tightened up in the finished version. Though I had some misgivings, I did enjoy this book and the cover alone makes it one to take home! That painting is gorgeous and captures to story so, so perfectly – bravo to the art department!

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