When Matthew’s driver pulled through the front gates, I thought Lakecrest was the ugliest house I’d ever seen. Unruly and disorienting, it was a mishmash of competing elements all fighting for attention. The roofline was so staggered I couldn’t tell if the building had three or four stories, and offshoots sprang out from the central structure with no clear pattern or purpose, one constructed in a half-timbered Tudor style, another with the stone facing and tall, narrow windows of a medieval cathedral. My eyes skimmed from a stone turret to a stained-glass bay window to a pair of gargoyles that seemed to be staring directly at me.
– In the Shadow of Lakecrest by Elizabeth Blackwell
In the Shadow of Lakecrest by Elizabeth Blackwell
In the Shadow of Lakecrest is a 1920s historical novel about a young woman named Kate who, while working as a governess to a wealthy family on vacation, meets a handsome, wealthy young man named Matthew Lemont. Kate’s mother always taught her that her best chance at happiness was to marry well, so when Matthew takes an interest, she acts quickly, agreeing to travel with him back to Chicago, and quickly marrying at the courthouse, before he could reconsider or his family could object. Kate, however, had not considered that perhaps Matthew too was holding secrets, and when he insists that they move back to his family home at his mother’s insistance, Kate discovers a family at odds with each other, and an intriguing family mystery: years ago, Matthew’s aunt Cecily disappeared on the grounds and was never found despite extensive searches. Kate sets out to solve the mystery of Cecily’s disappearance, hoping that it might give her husband and family some peace.
This book had a good deal in common with gothic romance, and even drew its own comparisons to Edgar Allan Poe, whose stories Kate reads at one point in the narrative. These connections were even more apparent in the characterization – all of the characters followed some kind of trope of gothic romance – Kate was the outsider driven to solve the mystery, Matthew was the wealthy man with a tragic family history, Cecily was the mysterious and eccentric victim. However, these similarities were mostly superficial, as each character, by the end of the novel, revealed strengths as well as weaknesses. Matthew, for example, seems at first to be charming and confident, but in the first third of the novel, his own mental instability is revealed. However, these mental troubles, while perhaps initially stemming from certain family weaknesses, were developed during his time in WWI. He clearly shows signs of post traumatic stress disorder. Cecily too can be used as an example. Cecily disappeared long before Kate arrived at Lakecrest, but her personality is revealed through conversations with the Lemont family, as well as family friends. Much about Cecily can be admired – she saw how the men of the family were admired and spoken of, but the women were confined within a small domestic role and were rarely discussed after their deaths. Cecily keenly felt this injustice and fought to restore power to the women in her life. However, Cecily undoubtedly suffered from mental illness. She spent days in a depression in her room, and emerged for manic pagan celebrations on the Lakecrest grounds.
In the Shadow of Lakecrest, while closely following the traits of a gothic romance, still managed to address some profound social injustices of the 1920s that resonate with a modern audience. While sexism has diminished over the last century, much of the oppression that Cecily and Kate experienced is still present in some form. Cecily was troubled by the pressure upon the men of the family to perform well outside the family and provide for the women and children, and saw how the women of her family were defined primarily by their relationship to the men – daughter or sister or wife, with little consideration to their own wishes. Kate found a similar struggle – she married into the Lemont family hoping for some financial security, but quickly found that she traded her freedom for that security. She was expected to submit to the will of her husband and her mother-in-law, and keenly felt the threat of confinement if she acted out of turn. Another injustice was addressed, perhaps less plainly in the text, but still equally important. Many of the characters of the novel suffered from some sort of mental illness. Not unlike our own society where we are expected to perform our duties to our family and our work with as little impact from mental illness as possible, the characters in In the Shadow of Lakecrest did all they could to hide their mental illness, often from their families as much as the outside world. Cecily was treated in secret for her own mental illness, as was Matthew, even to the point of being confined for a time in a secret room in the house.
I would rate In the Shadow of Lakecrest an 8 out of 10. The characters did not break any molds but still managed to be interesting, and I appreciated that the novel touched on some social themes that our society still fights. I would recommend this novel for lovers of mystery and horror, especially fans of Edgar Allan Poe.