A dream job at a writer’s house turned museum becomes nightmarish for a young couple.
The fourth novel by Dolnick (At the Bottom of Everything, etc.) is narrated by Nick, a musician scraping by in New York City with his girlfriend, Hannah. Though she’s just lost her job at a historical society, she thinks she’s found a great new replacement gig: managing the upstate New York home of Edmund Wright, a 19th-century writer with eccentric interests (he attempted to create an encyclopedia of all possible human sensations) and a tragic past. Despite the author’s eerie back story, the Hudson Valley house at first seems idyllic, giving Nick time to write songs while Hannah leads school groups. But when Hannah is found dead by a riverbank not long after their arrival, Nick has a hard time processing all the related informational inputs: Hannah’s past mental health issues, dark stories about former caretakers, and the ghost stories that surrounded Edmund Wright himself. The constituent pieces of the plot are unconvincingly stitched together: Hannah’s parents are overprotective by the standards of a 4-year-old let alone a 20-something, Nick commits a crime that’s out of character, and it’s hard to imagine what school group would want to visit the Wright home at all given the proposed classroom activities. (“Can you list five experiences from your own life that were painful? Please be as detailed as possible.”) And for a story ostensibly about hauntedness, there isn’t much of a frightening vibe. Its strength is as a tale about a young man’s grief, capturing the mental blind alleys bereavement sends us down and the feeling that “every house is a haunted house.” But though Dolnick is a strong observational writer playing with a variety of forms (memoir loose, 19th-century formal), the prevailing feeling is of a supernatural tale falling short of its ambitions.
A ghost story that’s more clunky than creepy.