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Book Review: The Gates of Evangeline

By (September 1, 2015) No Comment

The Gates of Evangelinethe gates of evangeline

by Hester Young

Putnam, 2015

Hester Young’s debut novel is a patchwork of plain and familiar contrivances, strung together along a line connecting the last five novels more or less exactly like it. It is family drama, it is Southern Gothic, and it should work no better than those shopworn ingredients warrant. That it succeeds as well as it does – this is a terrifically readable book, a near-perfect hybrid of guilty pleasure and ‘literary’ fiction – is a glowing affirmation of Young’s decision to give this whole writing-for-a-living thing a go.

The story focuses on Charlotte “Charlie” Cates, the managing editor of Sophisticate magazine who’s forced to deal with a corporate buyout of the magazine even though she’s still dazed and hollowed out by the recent tragic death of her young son Keegan. Charlie, divorced from her boorish husband, has worked hard at her job, having graduated from journeyman work at a tabloid-style magazine to an enviable position now threatened by a management shakeup:

After our call, I sit staring at the phone, wondering why I’m not more concerned about this job I spent most of my adult life chasing. Twelve years, I realize in disbelief, I began working for the magazine at twenty-six. Once I determined my stint at Cold Crimes magazine was going nowhere, I started freelancing for Sophisticate until they offered me a staff writer position. Sophisticate was a complete 180 from writing about old murders and advances in forensics, but it was a steady job and a paycheck. Now, many years and several promotions later, I am managing editor and I have an amazing career. Right?

Her friends and co-workers consider her a tough and capable person, but in her own head, her summary of herself is terse and unpitying – and it always ends on the same bleak note: “An amazing career and no social life. Hardly any family. And no son.” The loss of Keegan eats at her and compels her to scenes of emotional bathos that Young choose to embrace rather than omit:

From the toy box, I select his three favorite stuffed animals – Dinosaur, Fat Teddy, and Ringo the Rhino – and arrange them around his pillow. I peel back the blankets and untuck them at the corners, forming a little cocoon in the middle just big enough for a four-year-old to snuggle inside. I flip off the lights. Sit down on the edge of his bed. Watch swirls of glow-in-the-dark adhesive stars appear on the walls around me.

Her grief over Keegan also causes her to dream of lost children calling out for someone to save them – dreams she naturally ascribes to unprocessed trauam. And that same grief may be what sways her to consider a job offer made by Isaac Cohen, a colleague from her Cold Crimes days who’s now working for a publisher and wants her to consider writing a book for him about a famous thirty-year-old cold case from Louisiana. The offer surprises her (Isaac “didn’t seem like the type to assign stories about crimes,” she wryly observes of the disheveled Cohen, “he looked like he’d be out there committing them”), and although she’s familiar with the case of the three-year-old son of the powerful Deveau family disappearing from the family’s huge estate of Evangeline, she’s at first reluctant to take the job. “I know the basics,” she tells Isaac. “They never found him. One ransom note, no body, no criminal. Not much of a story.”

But it turns out this wouldn’t be a mere sensation-grabbing book to commemorate the crime’s thirtieth anniversary; the surviving Deveau family members have pledged their full cooperation with her work (and offered her lodgings at Evangeline itself during her research), and their apparent search for some degree of closure about this tragedy that’s darkened their lives speaks to Charlie’s own open emotional wounds. She takes the job.

Readers familiar with the whole Southern Gothic sub-genre will know some of the things they can expect from that point on. Young seems comfortable with those expectations, and she serves them up with gusto and some genuine literary skill: we have lush landscapes flecked with menacing shadows; we have well-intentioned but weirdly compromised local law enforcement; we have colorful locals; and most of all, we have a hysterically dysfunctional and secretive wealthy old Southern family, complete with sneaky room-arrivals, ambiguous mutterings, and questionable table manners. In some of the book’s middle sections, all this threatens to teeter into camp, but Young always manages to pull it back from the brink, usually by the same means: the character of Charlie herself, at once so damaged and so stalwart. As Charlie probes deeper into the mystery of the Deveau boy’s disappearance, the plot dovetails with enviable precision not only on the dreams Charlie’s been having but also on her own personal loss.

Putnam has decked out The Gates of Evangeline with a typically gorgeous (and slightly disorienting) cover by Pete Garceau, and the book comes with ample advance praise – all of which is well-deserved. This is an enormously and moving debut that also doubles as an accomplished police-procedural thriller. And if the twist in the tale’s climax is predictable, it’ll still put a big lump in your throat and have you reaching for a soothing mint julip.