The Evening Spider: A Novel

  • By Emily Arsenault
  • William Morrow
  • 400 pp.
  • Reviewed by Stacey Graham
  • March 21, 2016

This otherwise decent ghost story is undermined by too many murky details

Abby Bernacki, a history teacher on maternity leave, begins hearing strange noises coming from baby Lucy’s room. Faced with the possibility of supernatural forces afoot in her home, Abby stumbles onto the journal of another woman, Frances Barnett, who lived in the house 125 years earlier. Told from Abby’s perspective in December of 2014 and Frances’ letters from her seclusion at the Northhampton Lunatic Hospital, The Evening Spider is an interwoven tale of two women with madness to hide.

When Abby digs deeper into the journal, she finds a mystery hiding behind recipes for cider cakes. Tucked between the pages are the private thoughts of Frances, someone who — like Abby — is crumbling from the pressure to be the perfect wife and mother. But Frances may have had a secret, too.

The novel details two murders from Frances’ lifetime, one of which consumes the young mother to such a degree that she slips away from her infant daughter, Martha, and eventually ends up in a mental institution. Overcome with thoughts of her own death and the demands of motherhood, Frances can no longer keep hold of her sanity.

Haunted by her own dark memories of a college roommate, Abby’s disassociation from those closest to her is similar to Frances’, though the reader isn’t quite sure if it’s a result of postpartum depression or if Abby has always been a bit of a jerk. (After the way she treats both the roommate and her husband, I tend to find her more unlikeable than sympathetic.) Still, as Abby becomes more immersed in Frances’ story, her own plight becomes more intriguing, too.

On the whole, The Evening Spider starts out as a good ghost story but is soon undermined by the inclusion of too many characters and murky details. I felt cheated at the end by not knowing exactly what was going on, although readers with a nose for the mysterious might feel otherwise. Still, Arsenault shines in her descriptions of the long-ago murders and the subsequent trials in Victorian courts. I’d love to see more such courtroom-intrigue writing from this author.

The final chapters of The Evening Spider left me both angry (in a passionate-about-an-issue way) and frustrated by all the loose ends. What caused an unexplained bruise on Abby? Does she go for counseling or sink further into depression? Her passivity made me want more, although that may have been the author’s goal all along: for us to ponder at what point we should give in to our memories and let them win.

Stacey Graham is an associate agent with Red Sofa Literary and author living outside of Washington, DC. Please say hello at her website and on Twitter

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