And boy, am I glad I stuck with it because it really turned out to be a great read - a good mystery with a nice twist that I didn't see coming and great characters, with one especially unforgettable, one-of-a-kind: Greer Camperdown. I read some of the goodreads.com reviews and many of the positive ones were thinking like me: if this were a movie, who would play Greer? And Greer would be the show stealer.
But the protagonist of this story is 13 year old Riddle, AKA Jimmy, AKA Hoffa, because, well, she's named after Jimmy Hoffa (Riddle James Camperdown). She lives on Cape Cod, with a well-named family, who's father Godfrey, AKA Camp, is running for Congress and her mom, the wonderful Greer, is (forever) an actress who had won an academy award. She is very theatrical and is always smoking a cigarette. She is caustic in the way she speaks, and she speaks her mind all the time.
The rest of my review will contain spoilers and I recommend reading the rest only if you've read the book because this will spoil the book for you. And the book is worth a read.
We spend the summer of 1972 with Riddle, although the book opens with her as an adult. In 1972, we learn about Riddle coming across the very eerie, creepy, make-your-skin-crawl Gula. How Elizabeth Kelly could write a character so evil with so few words, I have no earthly idea, but she managed to do that with Gula, a European immigrant who was the stable hand for their rich neighbor friend, Gin.
One afternoon, as Riddle searches for a missing puppy in Gin's stable, she hears strange moans and sees strange things: clumps of hair tinged red. Gula appears and taunts her about what she may have seen, or not, behind a closed door. She says nothing, takes the now found puppy and leaves. Her instinct knows something is very, very bad but what, she has no idea.
A few days later, and for most of the novel, we learn that Greer's ex-fiancee, and another rich, well-known aristocrat, Michael Devlin...his youngest son is missing. They suspect the 15 year old may have run away, or did something foolish and will be home soon. After Riddle sees the older brother, Harry, and his unique colored hair, she realizes that the same red-tinged clump of hair in the barn is the same color and now suspects that Gula did something to the brother.
The barn has burned down along with any evidence but it becomes clear that Gula has indeed done something malicious, as he continues to allude to things to Riddle. He stares at her, calls her his friend, even mentions that he caught her with a boy at the barn the day the barn caught on fire. He follows her and pops out of nowhere to goad her.
As this goes on, she befriends Harry, who is 19. She falls for him but is torn by the knowledge of Gula, the brother, and the guilt that she's said nothing.
This is the book but there are more things that go on, between Michael Devlin and Camp. Greer is just witty and amazing. So many paragraphs of her talking that just make this novel worth the read.
At a party at their house, Greer goes on about some of the guests in her home...most of them are Camp's political supporters:
"Camp, who are these people? That woman with the big hair, Harold Bristol's mistress. I can't believe he brought her here along with his wife. She looks as if she represents Arkansas in a frog jump-off. The only woman more unattractive than her is his wife. Such a royal pain in the ass. Silly manners and affected demeanor. Meanwhile, I can see the dirt under her fingernails. As for that wretched couple from your campaign office, they have all the appeal of a mime struggling against an imaginary wind. That repulsive Gordon Crenshaw -- the man is a primitive reminder of what life would be like without Vitamin C."My other favorite Greer quote. The discussion about Harry, and whether he cared that he was rich.
Greer, to Riddle: "Do you have any idea how much money that boy has to play with? Unbelievable."
Riddle: "I don't care. That's gross."
Greer: "Spare me your uninformed teen ideology."
I love that and I am going to use it on my own girls. :)
But after this Greer says:
"...Of course, he can afford to be indifferent. There is no God. Wait. I take that back, there is a God. There must be. The universe is just too perverse -- there must be an idiosyncratic mind at the helm."
Riddle is great too. She throws back punches at her mom. Camp is a great dad. And Harry is to-die for. But, in the end, the twist is the one that caught me by surprise, which made this book fall into that whole "indie" movie-like category...because it doesn't actually end with a bow. It doesn't end happy nor sadly. It just ends.
A great author. I definitely plan to read more from her. Yes. She uses a LOT of "big" words but once you can overcome that, it becomes part of her prose.