Book Review: The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters


The Little Stranger
by Sarah Waters
Riverhead Books (Penguin Group)
2009
466 pages

I should probably have more to say about a 466 page novel than I do, but to tell you the truth? I’m honestly not quite sure what to think about this one.  (That’s intentional, because the ending does make you think.)

The Little Stranger has been all over the book blogosphere, highly praised by many. I’m afraid I’m not going to be among them, for this left me kind of … meh.  Which is not how I want to feel after spending 466 pages with you. 

I’ll say right off the bat that I am not much of a mystery story, things-that-go-bump-in-the-night kinda girl … so, it does beg the question why I picked up this novel about a run-down haunted mansion (that’s it on the cover) and the Ayres family that lives within its deteriorating, crumbling walls.  

The answer to my question is … I don’t know, other than the fact that many bloggers I respect liked this one.

A word on the scary factor.  Others have commented that The Little Stranger was scary, painful to read at some points, and downright frightening.  For me – who scares rather easily (which is why I don’t watch horror movies or read horror) – this was kind of tame in terms of spookiness.  There’s a ghost haunting Hundreds and causing all kinds of mischief.

OK, this I can handle. Hell, I worked in at least two haunted mansions.  You don’t know spooky until you’re working late at night in a mansion and are desperate enough for a Coke that you actually go down into the basement of said haunted mansion to the vending machine. 

But back to The Little Stranger and the Ayres family, which is matriarch Mrs. Ayres, her daughter Caroline, and her son Roderick.  All live together at Hundreds Hall in the English countryside in the mid 1940s, post-World War II.  A local doctor, Dr. Faraday, has a connection to Hundreds through his deceased mother, who was a servant there back in the day.  And indeed, even though there doesn’t seem to be much to do at Hundreds except prepare tea and fetch coats, the Ayres family (who have some financial difficulties and are selling off their expansive land that they can’t maintain to developers) seem to have the need to employ not one, but two maids. Betty is portrayed as a simpleton and Mrs. Bazeley is pretty much nonexistent during most of the novel.

Dr. Faraday becomes reconnected with Hundreds Hall and the Ayres family after being called there because of Betty falling ill.  He becomes a regular guest – so regular, in fact, that the majority of The Little Stranger involves him going to and fro Hundreds to check out strange noises and bumps in the night, or just to drop by and say hi.  (It’s his frocks and tea that Betty spends most of her days fetching.)  This gets wearisome after awhile and makes the middle of the book drag a bit (this middle section could have used a bit more editing, in my opinion).

I think one of my problems with this novel is that I just didn’t like any of these people.  There’s a love story – sort of – but even that didn’t ring true to me (and that was probably intentional).  I had more sympathy for the poor “haints” in the walls of the house, and in the end there wasn’t a resolution … just more questions.  Which irked me, probably because I am getting cranky in my old age and I like there to be some sort of answers or “a-ha” moment after 466 pages. I’ll quote my friend Semicolon here, who says in her review exactly what I mean:  “I enjoyed reading The Little Stranger, but I enjoyed reading it because I thought I would find an explanation for the suspenseful events of the novel by the end.”

EXACTLY.

What I did like was how Sarah Waters made Hundreds Hall its own character.  Her descriptions of the mansion were incredibly vivid and ironically, brought the house to life.  The house is more alive than the occupants within. The reader definitely gets a sense of the coldness within its walls and that it is tired.  In a way, The Little Stranger is more a book about Hundreds than it is the Ayres family and Dr. Faraday (who narrates the story).   The house has been through a great deal in the two hundred plus years it has been standing.   This passage refers to Mrs. Ayres, but could very well be a description of Hundreds Hall itself.

“When I thought about it later, I realised what burdens she’d been living under for so many years: the death of a child, the death of a husband, the stresses of war, her injured son, the lost estate … But she had hidden those burdens very successfully behind a veil of breeding and charm, and to see her lose her self-possession now, and opening weep, was shocking. For a second I sat across from her, almost transfixed; then I went and squatted beside her chair, and after a slight hesitation I took her hand – just took it, lightly, firmly, as any doctor might. Her fingers tightened around my own, and gradually she grew calmer.” (pg. 110)  

The Little Stranger is a story about the secrets we keep hidden because of their grip on us, about the truths we cannot and will not face, and what happens when we finally do. 

What Other Bloggers Thought:

A Book a Week
A Bookworm’s World
Asylum
Back to Books
Book Addiction
The Book Lady’s Blog
BooksPlease
Capricious Reader
Caribou’s Mom
Chrisbookarama
Farm Lane Books
Fleur Fisher in her world
Linus’s Blanket
Nonsuch Book
Novel Insights
Presenting Lenore
Reviews by Lola
S. Krishna’s Books
Sarah Laurence Blog (and an interview with Sarah Waters!)
Savidge Reads
Semicolon
Shelf Love
things mean a lot
You’ve GOTTA Read This!

copyright 2011, Melissa (Betty and Boo’s Mommy, The Betty and Boo Chronicles) If you are reading this on a blog or website other than The Betty and Boo Chronicles or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

  1. reviewsbylola

    My reaction was a lot more similar to yours. I just wasn’t impressed. In fact, I was downright bored. It was actually a big shock to me, as I have never not loved something by Waters!

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