Garth Stein’s new book, A Sudden Light, is about fourteen year old Trevor Riddell whose father, Jones, has taken him on a trip to his father’s childhood home, Riddell House. Riddell House, overlooking Puget Sound, is a sprawling mansion built off of the former fortunes of the Riddell family timber industry. Trevor’s mom and dad are on a trial separation and Trevor wants nothing more than for his parents to get back together. Upon arrival at Riddell house, Trevor meets his seemingly senile Grandpa Samuel, and his much too flirty aunt Serena. Aunt Serena and Jones have plans to sell off the deteriorating Riddell House, place Grandpa Samuel in a home, and split the profits to live a blissfully happy life. Riddell House, however, has other plans.
Riddell House holds many secrets. Mainly, ghosts. Trevor isn’t exactly haunted, I’d say more like visited, by a long deceased relative. This allows Trevor to get to know the true history of Riddell house as well as its past inhabitants. These visits give way to some revelations about Riddell family father/son histories which sets Trevor on a path to uproot the plans of his own father and aunt. While Trevor wants a better relationship with his father Jones, Jones is distant and seems reluctant to put forth any effort to really get to know his son for most of the book. Aunt Serena is clearly manipulative and has nefarious intent, a sure sign she should not be trusted.
The house itself is another character in this book. Riddell House is built out of wood; this being a deliberate slight from the son who built it (the conservationist) to the father (the timber baron) he was building it for. The conservationist in me loved the dichotomy of a timber baron having an environmentalist son who has his father live in a house that is meant to eventually fall apart. The house also symbolizes a lot of other struggles of a father/son relationship. A theme in the Riddell family that keeps repeating in each subsequent generation.
I found this book to be overall enjoyable. Sometimes the holes in the story filled by the diary notes got a little in the way in terms of flow for the book and slowed things down a bit for my taste. Trevor read as an old soul to me, especially given the descriptiveness of some of his recollections/storytelling. He’s a likable teen who seemed rather well-adjusted to any scenario that he encountered. His father and aunt were harder to like and didn’t offer much in terms of being redemptive. But this is Trevor’s story and not theirs. Stein has created a cool site, asuddenlight.com, that provides extra insight into the book and provides some history on the topics within the book. It’s well worth checking out!
I was fortunate enough to have Stein make a stop at a local bookstore as part of his A Sudden Light tour. I found A Sudden Light to be written with a lot of passion and that it was clearly well researched. I could see this passion on display from Stein at his reading/book signing event, which made the book that much more enjoyable for me. Garth Stein’s books are a bit different that what I normally like to read. There is an overall happiness and hope in his books but it’s a happiness that is tinged with sadness, which is what appeals to me. A Sudden Light is about ghosts, but it’s more about family and how those relationships can become fractured and destroyed if not taken care of, much like the land we live on.