Book Review: The Family Plot by Cherie Priest
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tor (September 20, 2016)
Length: 368 pages
You never know what you’re going to get when you pick up a book by Cherie Priest. This is the third novel I’ve read by the author, after Boneshaker and Maplecroft, but in neither of those cases did I feel strongly enough to continue their respective series. The Family Plot, however, was a little different. I found myself hooked from the first page, and didn’t come up for air until I was finished.
Maybe it was because of the book’s topic. I’ve always been drawn to stories about haunted houses, and the entire premise of The Family Plot is built around the subject. We begin with an introduction to Chuck Dutton, founder and owner of Music City Salvage, a company that specializes in the stripping of old properties and then reselling the valuable pieces. Unfortunately, business isn’t doing too well, and Chuck is one bad deal away from going under. So when the stately Augusta Withrow walks through his office door offering him salvage rights to her sizeable historic family estate and all for a steal of $40,000, he’s understandably dubious. Still, the gorgeous photos of the house’s interiors and the potential for a large payoff ultimately leads him agree to the job, and Chuck decides to send a skeleton crew headed by his daughter Dahlia to undertake the project.
Dahlia and her team—made up of her cousin Bobby, his son Gabe, and a relatively new employee of Music City named Brad—all make the drive out together to the old house nestled in the backwoods of Chattanooga, Tennessee…and arrive to a veritable goldmine. With only a few days to complete the job, the four of them get down to stripping the place right away. Still, while the splendor of the Withrow estate is certainly everything that was promised, the crew soon uncovers a few surprises. For one thing, Augusta had failed to mention the small graveyard on the property, tucked away among the overgrown trees. To save time and money, the team has also decided to forgo hotels and spend the nights at the house, but strange things are happening and they only seem to get worse when darkness falls. Then, all four of them start to see people who aren’t really there, ghosts that are watching, waiting, and trying to communicate something—but none of the salvage crew have any idea what that could possibly be.
Imagine HGTV’s Salvage Dogs meets Paranormal Activity and you have a pretty good idea of what The Family Plot is about. On the one hand, there’s something very appealing about exploring old houses, the idea of uncovering history and not knowing what amazing treasures you’ll find. On the other hand though, there’s also a certain wariness, knowing that when a house gets to a certain age it can almost take on a life and spirit of its own. Dahlia is someone who understands that all too well, especially since she makes a living from gutting places such as these. From the moment the crew steps foot onto the Withrow estate, an atmosphere of foreboding immediately descends upon the reader. The house itself is like a character in this story; you get the feeling that it knows these people are going to come in and take it apart, and it is pissed.
Plus, in addition to a good old house haunting you also get a healthy dose of family drama. Those relationship dynamics add an extra layer of tension to an already strained situation, exacerbating the setting’s creepy atmosphere and the desperation caused by the time crunch. In many ways, the fantastic development of Dahlia’s personality helped this book stand out for me, along with the deconstruction of her character’s hurt and anger following her messy divorce. Worse, her hotheaded and recalcitrant cousin Bobby is also her ex-husband’s best friend, which makes his presence on her crew even more awkward. Still, Dahlia is not someone to complain about her circumstances, and manages to wrangle her crew effectively using a smart give-and-take philosophy.
Another noteworthy aspect of this book was its general matter-of-fact attitude about the existence of ghosts. It seems almost every single haunted house story that I’ve read in recent memory have tackled this with ambiguity or left readers wondering, “What was real and what wasn’t?” Not so with The Family Plot. Ghosts are an occupational hazard when you’re in Dahlia’s line of work, and she acknowledges their presence with an almost insouciant air of someone who has seen it all. There is no question of whether or not there really are ghosts at the Withrow estate—the answer is a resounding yes, they are real, and yes, they are there. What we’re left wondering is who they are and what they want, and yet those puzzles are enough to keep the mystery of the story going, along with the pervasive sense that something just doesn’t feel right (well, besides the fact that there are actually ghosts). Everything that Augusta has told Music City and everything the crew has learned sounds legit, but there is still that nagging feeling that not everything is adding up, and so you want to keep reading to find out what is going on.
With three books by Priest under my belt now, one thing I’ve learned is that she is an incredibly versatile writer who seems to glide effortlessly into any kind of story or narrative style she decides to take on. Every novel I’ve read by her so far has been very different from each other. However, that also means not all her books are going to strike my fancy, as evidenced by my previous experiences, but I’m glad I decided to keep trying her work. The Family Plot came along and managed to hit every one of my buttons and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I would highly recommend it for anyone who loves stories about ghosts or haunted houses.