It’s every girl’s dream. When Lane’s reclusive mother dies, she assumes she’ll be alone in the world, but to her astonishment her mother’s estranged parents seek her out. Moving back to her mother’s childhood home, Roanoke in Kansas, fifteen-year-old Lane is suddenly no longer an orphan but part of a wealthy, loving family presided over by her charismatic grandfather. She even has a new best friend in the form of her lively cousin Allegra. And so, as Lane adjusts to the life of a Roanoke girl – one of the golden few, the object of fascination, desire and envy for the rest of the folk in town – she begins to wonder what on earth drove her mother away. There’s just one strange coincidence that troubles her. As Allegra puts it herself, ‘Roanoke girls never last long around here. We either run or we die.’
Having grown up in New York, in the shadow of her troubled and erratic mother, Lane is overwhelmed by the comforts of Roanoke. The sprawling farm; the animals; the gruff, old-time family retainer Charlie; her elegant grandmother Lillian and her twinkling, boyish grandfather Yates… Yet there’s also something odd about it that Lane can’t quite put her finger on. The house is an amalgam of styles, full of rooms and staircases and odd levels. Allegra’s hectic moods trouble her too. But, as the days pass, Lane gets used to it. She begins to build a life for herself, hanging out in the local town of Osage Flats and flirting with the local bad-boy, Cooper Sullivan. For one long, hot summer, it looks as if things might be OK after all. But then, a decade later, in the ‘present day’ of the story, Lane gets a call at her home in Los Angeles. Allegra is missing. History, it seems, hasn’t yet given up repeating itself. But has Allegra run away? Or is there a more sinister reason for her disappearance? It’s time to return to Roanoke.
I won’t say any more about the plot, because to give too much detail is to risk spoiling it. Suffice to say that Engel writes beautifully, creating a lush, intoxicating atmosphere in which the hints of danger and forbidden knowledge swell like hothouse flowers. Her plotting is also deft, weaving together different time periods so that we gradually come to understand the secrets harboured within the walls of Roanoke. It’s finely balanced, paced with a burgeoning sense of menace and its piece-by-piece revelations mean that you’re constantly reviewing and revising the story in light of the details that Engel drip-feeds to you. This is definitely one of those ‘one more chapter before bed’ books.
I’m going to finish with a note to the publishers. This is one of the increasing number of books which are sold with irritating taglines added after their titles. It suggests that you don’t think readers are bright enough to figure out the genre by themselves. For example, this book’s full Kindle title (in my edition) reads: ‘The Roanoke Girls: the most shocking, DEEPLY DARKLY twisted thriller you’ll read this year!’ Capitals, note. Because we have the attention spans of gnats. Don’t do this. Every single thriller now seems to be advertised with ‘a shocking twist you won’t see coming!’. Just stick to the title. These taglines make you look like newbie self-publishers, desperately trying to get sales. It suggests that you don’t believe your book stands out enough on its own merit from the million other thrillers out there; and that just isn’t true, with this book or with similarly compelling reads, like The Girl on the Train. Less is more.
Has anyone else read this? I’d love to know what you thought. I see that Engel has also written another novel, The Book of Ivy. Is that worth seeking out?