Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
Bittersweet Hollow, book 3
By Aaron Paul Lazar
Nov 2016, ISBN: 1539955788
Though suspense novels aren’t usually a genre I gravitate towards, there’s a rich gentleness in Aaron Lazar’s prose that makes for an enjoyable, relaxing read, even when the plot becomes tense. Lazar is the master of the extended series, building his characters over years, slowly and richly so they become real to the reader. Little by little the characters backstories are revealed, even as we move forward in time and meet children and grandchildren. For readers coming back to the stories, there are plenty of ‘easter eggs’ or references to pick up on. His collection is pretty extensive, including the Legarde Mysteries, the Green Marble Mysteries, the Tall Pines Mysteries and the Paines Creek Beach series. His latest series Bittersweet Hollow is no exception. For the reader who has already become familiar with the Rockwell family, the third and final book in the trilogy won’t disappoint. It has all the usual elements of suspense and discovery, coupled with beautiful depictions of the family dynamics in this much beleaguered but still tight-knit group. Readers with no exposure to the Rockwell family will have no trouble jumping into this latest book as Lazar weaves enough backstory in to make the context clear.
The novel connects several stories. One is that of Grace and Anderson Rockwell, who move in with Grace’s parents Orville and Tessie Hawke on their Vermont horse farm while they try to deal with their financial struggles. Both have had their share of problems in the past, but they’ve moved on and now have a beautiful baby daughter Caroline. Boone and Portia also live at home. As readers of the other stories in this series will know, Portia has also had her troubles, but the family support network is strong, and Portia and Boone have a young child or their own, little Joey. The whole family interacts in a believable and charming way and Lazar allows the reader to really feel the small rituals that make up a life – large roast dinners, washing up routines, gardening, working on the land. All of this is rendered with a delicate care that shows Lazar’s attention:
Boone accepted a wet plate from Portia and began to dry it with a white terrycloth towel. Tonight they’d offered to take care of the supper dishes. The whole extended family had fallen into a good rhythm.
While the family dynamics are supportive and warm, there are still a few secrets that begin to surface in unexpected ways. This leads to a turn of events that ends up with health crises, potential bankruptcy and loss of the farm, and the abduction of Caroline and Joey which becomes the focus point of the plot, introducing us to the criminally unstable Lollie Belvedere. Lazar does a wonderful job mingling the farce of Lollie and Colby’s home life – a point of some black humour – without sacrificing either the dramatic tension of the abduction story or the caring warmth of Lollie’s housekeeper Rosita, as she prepares endless boxes of buttery cookies, pots of coffee and chile and cornbread. It’s impossible to read a Lazar book without becoming hungry for comfort food, as he describes it so well. The small Vermont town is brought to life vividly, and the story is fast-paced and well-structured, with a beautiful tension between the old-fashioned nature of country life and modern technology and its perils. The financial struggles of the family are realistic and relatable:
Portia knew the farms were struggling. It was no secret that money had been tight. The past two years of drought had brought disaster to the local farmers. Yearling sales were down, and the prices for dairy products had plummeted. Both farms were close to failing.
This becomes another significant plot point when Orville’s health problems make his own financial subterfuge obvious, and when a huge hospital bill comes in just as the health insurance is cancelled due to non-payment. The slow building of problems which finally tips this family into crisis again is handled very well, and Lazar builds a story as full of drama as it is rich with warmth, romance, mystery and excitement. Devil’s Spring is an easy-to-read, well-written novel that will appeals to readers of all tastes. There’s a little something in it for everyone.