This is the Forest of Arden

Review by Allie at This is the Forest of Arden:

“Almost instantly, I was pulled back into the story. The characters came alive in my mind, and I became the heroine. I felt her feelings, her desperation and terror, and for a little while, forgot my own problems.”
– Robin Finley, the book’s first-person narrator, explains why she reads suspense novels, while unfortunately inhabiting a suspense novel herself

“Christian Suspense”. The words stopped me in my tracks as I gazed down the list of free Kindle books. There’s always a fascination in a genre you’ve never heard of, especially when the author puts the genre in the title in parenthesis.

I’m not sure if this genre obsession ever existed in the pre-Internet era; as far as I can tell, there was science fiction, there was detective fiction, and then there was everything else. But once Google and Goodreads came into being, people started looking for a fix of whatever their last book was made of, and the next thing you knew we had Paranormal Romance and Dystopian Fiction and all those other things readers crave. And now, apparently, there was Christian Suspense. I tried to think of anything else that might fit that category and came up with Regina Doman’s Fairy Tale Novels, which taught me, in my early teens, what suspense was in the first place.

Clicking over, I saw that Regina Doman herself had written the blurb on the front cover. That sealed the deal. If I was witnessing the dawn of a new genre, I wanted in on it.

I have every reason to envy author Therese Heckenkamp; it wasn’t until I’d finished the book that I found out she wrote it the summer before she started college. (Darn it, that’s what I wanted to do with this summer.) And what she tells is clearly a pre-college-summer kind of story. That’s not to say it’s juvenile, but there’s a sweetness to it that reminds you of 80s photographs. A bookstore, a diary, the scent of lilacs and a long-abandoned house figure prominently into the plot. Oh, and boys. Two of them. They don’t seem to like each other.

But look at me, I’m making this sound like Nancy Drew. The book wouldn’t be any good if it didn’t have that bit of edge, and heroine Robin Finley–who could be a sort of literary second-cousin of mine, so much she reminds me of my own habitual heroine Renee Rant–likes a bit of edge. She likes exactly the bit of edge that a girl raised, as she was, by an overprotective mother might appreciate–suspense novels. There’s a touch of class to them and they won’t put her in actual danger, but they’ll keep her busy.

Because Robin’s reading habits fascinate me, I here include the name of her author of choice: Victoria Holt. I’d never heard of Victoria Holt up until now (googled her name; she does exist), but how perfect a name is that? It reeks of musty attics and long forgotten perfume and just a touch of the ghostly. I now want to hunt up Victoria Holt and devour everything she ever wrote. It helps that all Robin’s copies are used, somehow. (You’ll never guess who used some of them.)

Unfortunately, it turns out that Robin’s mother was overprotective for a reason–her own past was a sort of suspense novel in itself. She’s dead now (last words: “Don’t trust anyone”), and Robin is back in the town where her mother grew up–a town, in fact, that her mother never talked about. Now, of course, the Suspense Gods see Robin as a fair target for a sequel.

The result echoes Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca as much as it echoes the summer of a normal eighteen-year-old girl. Whereas Rebecca was full of descriptions of towering rhododendron bushes and flowers dropping their petals every which way, Past Suspicion stops to let its heroine eat ice cream by a quiet campfire after a rain–something I know I’ve definitely done at some point, or close. (“There was something mesmerizing about the erratic, snapping fire. Warmth saturated my veins and soaked through my bones…Sighing, I thought of how no other flavor of ice cream was quite as enjoyable as vanilla.”) She gets to watch a Memorial Day parade; she rambles around in a graveyard, another thing we romantic teenagers do (though not all of us witness dramatic confrontations in them, as Robin does); she listens to an old song with lyrics so dead-on Frank-Sinatra sounding that I googled them (they don’t exist, though I wish they did); a modern girl would have this stuff all over her Instagram. Like any teenager who might be reading, she takes her breathers; then she goes and picks up the book again.

Why do we eighteen-year-old girls (or at any rate, Robin and myself) love our suspense novels? I think it’s because we’re too wrapped up in everything, so it’s nice to get wrapped up in something else. We need to try on a few emotions that are almost our own, but aren’t quite; at a time in our lives when everything is changing, we need to read something fast-paced just so we can learn to take it a bit slow. The story is somewhat predictable, but pleasantly so, and it’s at its best when the heroine is taking time to breathe and sort things out.

The denouement seems a bit far-fetched after all these glimpses of reality, and once the story’s over it seems to melt away like that ice cream so close to that campfire. Fortunately, thanks to its strong nostalgic feeling, it holds up well the second time around, and like any good novel in a teenage girl’s life, it’s always there to dip into again when you need it.

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