Book Review: The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti
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: 2 of 5 stars
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Atria Books (September 26, 2017)
Length: 352 pages
Maybe the publisher description led me to expect too much, or perhaps my standards for mystery-thrillers are simply much higher than they were before after reading so many fantastic novels in the genre this year. Whatever the case, The Blackbird Season just didn’t do it for me. To use one of my favorite phrases, everything about this book was “aggressively mediocre”—the mystery wasn’t too mysterious, the thrills weren’t that thrilling, and overall nothing about it really stood out.
If only the story had been as intriguing as the blurb promised. In the quiet mill town of Mt. Oanoke, Pennsylvania, the opening day of the high school baseball season is suddenly interrupted when a thousand dead starlings started raining from the sky. No one knows why it happened, but the disturbing phenomenon will soon also herald a series of unexpected events that will turn this small community upside down. It all begins when popular teacher, baseball coach, and—by all accounts—happily married husband and father Nate Winters is accused of having an affair with a student. The teenager in question is Lucia Hamm, a troubled loner whose white hair and obsession with death and the occult have led her classmates at school to nickname her the town witch.
Nate, however, is insistent on his innocence, claiming that he was simply being concerned with the wellbeing of his students, helping Lucia through some problems at home. His only crime is caring too much, he protests, and that everyone has merely gotten the wrong idea based on some blurry photos and vague text messages. But his wife Alecia Winters is not so certain. She knows beneath the “nice guy” façade, her husband is hiding many secrets, like the fact that he follows his students anonymously on social media, or that he can be an insufferable flirt. Their marriage is also on the rocks, worsening as Nate is suspended from work due to the investigation and Alecia is close to a nervous breakdown trying to care for their autistic five-year-old son. Then the unthinkable happens. Lucia disappears without a trace, and suddenly the allegations of rape turn into accusations of murder. As the whole town turns their backs on Nate, only one person has faith that he is innocent—Bridget Harris, a creative writing teacher at the school and also Nate’s trusted friend, who believes she has the evidence that would exonerate him.
The Blackbird Season wasn’t terrible, but for a mystery-thriller novel, it did fail the most important test of being exciting and fun. You can’t just throw together a bunch of good ideas and expect the magic to happen, there needs to be some follow through too, and this is where I feel the story faltered. For example, I was disappointed that the book blurb made such a big deal out of the mass death of starlings, which in the end turned out to be a peripheral event and played no essential role in the plot. Ultimately, it felt like a distraction to divert from the uncomfortable truth: that this story is just not that interesting.
On top of that, the pacing was sluggish and the characters were either too bland or too unlikeable to care about. Eventually, everything took on the feel of a made-for-TV drama, from the predictable small-town dynamics to the superficial protagonists with their perfunctory and clichéd flaws. First off, we have Nate, an all-around nice guy who is also incredibly naïve, to the point where actual uncertainty is created about his motives because you’re always thinking to yourself, “Surely no one can be this big of an idiot!” Too bad this was not the kind of suspense I was looking for. Next is Alecia, who I feel for because of her struggles as a mother with a disabled child who doesn’t get as much support as she needs. That said, she’s also so petulant, shallow, and bitter that it’s hard to relate to anything she says or does. I know that unlikeable character are pretty standard for the genre, but wow, this book was taking it to a whole other level.
The format also didn’t really work for me, though to be fair, I am often conflicted when it comes to narratives that bounce back and forth between past and present. I might have been more forgiving if the story hadn’t been such a slow-burn to begin with or if the mystery had been more compelling, but at the end of the day, the shifting timelines and changes in POVs only served to drag the pacing down some more. The final nail in the coffin though, was the ending. Predictable and anticlimactic, it didn’t leave me satisfied at all.
It’s lamentable, really, how much more The Blackbird Season could have been. It was not at all what I expected when I picked it up, feeling in the mood for a psychological thriller and hoping that this one would be a fast-paced heart-pounding read. At least the writing was fantastic, and I took no issue with Kate Moretti’s prose. To her credit, I had a pretty good idea of what she was trying to accomplish, but unfortunately it just didn’t quite happen for me. Hopefully, others will have better luck than me with this one.