Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling by Michael Boccacino

Title: Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling: A Novel
Author: Michael Boccacino

Genre: Fiction (Victoriana / Supernatural / Undead / Governess / Cross-Class Romance / Widow / Good Versus Evil / Motherhood / Mothers & Sons)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow Paperbacks (7/24/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked - ambiance; disliked - characters; okay - plot. I suppose I'll give that a solid 'okay' for good and for bad.
Did I finish?: I did -- only it took me a while because I kept nitpicking every other page.
One-sentence summary: A governess fights for her charges, her employer, her burgeoning romance, her sanity, and her reality when the world of the Not Dead threaten.
Reading Challenges: Historical, NetGalley, Victorian

Do I like the cover?: I love the cover: it's deceptively simply, evocative of the decaying estate where the story takes place, and I'm thrilled that it doesn't feature an anachronistically-dressed model with blowing hair and dress!

I'm reminded of...: Karen Essex, Theodora Goss, Holly Phillips

First line: Every night I dreamt of the dead...

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: I'm not really sure. If you go into this knowing it's not historically accurate, has shades of Gaiman (weirdness, not plot or characterization), and is predictable (for good and for bad), then maybe it'll work for you!

Why did I get this book?: The cover, the premise, the gothic.

Review: Here's the thing: if this is a Victorian-ish inspired alterna-reality, then this book rocks. However, if it is meant to be a Victorian historical, with supernatural elements Ć  la Henry James, then this book is kind of a big fail. From the start, the setting of the story is fuzzy: I just assumed it was Victorian, from the cover design and the ghostly mystery, but there's nothing specific in the text to place it there, and so my reading -- and review -- might be totally off.

Reminiscent of DuMaurier's Rebecca at the start -- from the similar-sounding first lines, to the heroine's dreams of houses burning, and the heavy emphasis on the estate of Everton -- this novel lacks the chilly tension and creepy mystery that makes Rebecca so fun. Boccacino seems fairly enamored of Charlotte Markham, his governess-narrator, and Mr. Darrow, master of Everton, but Boccacino doesn't offer the reader enough time to grow enamored of them as well, and so the inappropriate romance feels foisted and odd.

The heroine is a widow; her employer a widower. Both lost their spouses about a year ago or so, both attest to the deep and abiding love they have for their deceased spouses, and yet, Boccacino inserts a romance novel-ish frisson of desire. "At times our sessions together would only end when the sun threatened to appear over the horizon; at others they would continue on accidental touch of one hand against the other charged the space between us with something unspoken and unacknowledged." (p16) For the rest of the novel, Charlotte has a breathless eagerness to be cleaved to Mr. Darrow with a few weak protestations that she doesn't want to appear to be a seductress.

Rather than have a Jane Eyre-ish desire for the governess and master to end up together, I found myself telling a friend that Charlotte's interest in Darrow and her musings on life at Everton reminded me a bit of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle -- early on in the story, she's quick to imagine herself the mistress of the house simply because she cares for the master's children. Were Charlotte our anti-heroine, this build up would be deliciously wrong, but it's clear Charlotte is meant to be sympathetic, beautiful, and good.

I could harp on my problems with Charlotte, but I won't (and I did so in my Goodreads status updates), so I'll offer a few comments on the rest of the book. Boccacino creates a Victoriana playground for his characters to inhabit: the village of Blackfield is quaint, quirky, picturesque, and without class strata; the dream world of Darkling is a phantasmagoria-ish place of evil knickknacks, shifting landscapes, and tentacled overlords. When I could let go of my aggravation at the historically inaccurate behavior of our heroine, I really enjoyed the world-building, and the creepy atmosphere of the story.

So, needless to say, I've got complicated feelings about this book. Despite my complaints, however, I am eagerly anticipating Boccacino's next novel (not sure if one is in the works, but if there is...). If his character development matches his world-building, then we'll be in for a treat.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form (opens in a new tab/window). Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 8/10.


  1. This sounds like a very interesting read, and what's interesting to me is the way that it seems to mimic a lot of other books that are very well known and beloved. I think it would make for an interesting study to read this one and see what I think. Your complicated feelings for this book sound justified!

    1. I can't tell if it was an intentional homage or unconscious, but unlike those fabu classics, the heroine was really lacking. I would looooooooooooove to know your thoughts should you read this one -- like I said, there was a lot of promise and I do think Boccacino's next novel could really rock.

  2. Ditto what Zibilee said. I appreciate the nuance in your review, and it does sound like the book merits a jumble of reactions. On the one hand, the characterization and plot could use some fine-tuning, but if the world is as atmospheric, creepy, and evocative as it seems, the author's next work in that world could be worth picking up!

    1. Thank you for saying this was a nuanced review; I know I harped a lot but I just ... I wanted so much more and I was so frustrated with our heroine. I found myself telling my wife this was a bit like 'behavior punk' (like steampunk, only societal mores and norms no longer apply, unless convenient or plotty). I am eager for Boccacino's next book -- I think he could be on to something.

  3. It sounds like this one is not for me. It's a classic case of 'Wow! That sounds so interesting!' But then the more important element: 'is it any good?' I think I'll avoid this one, but I will be curious what the author does next!

    1. Like you and I discussed on another review -- Flight from Berlin, maybe? -- about that tension of a book's potential/originality vs reader response -- so much of this book could have been great -- and maybe it is great, and I am just the wrong reader -- or maybe I took the homage-y elements too seriously... I dunno. Of the bloggers I know who've read this, three out of four were cool on it so I don't think it was just me. :/

  4. Thanks for the honest mixed review. This one is not for me for sure.

  5. I haven't written my review for this one yet (need to get my butt in gear actually) but I agree with a lot of what you said, though I think I enjoyed it more than you did. I loved the Lovecraftian elements to it, which is what kept me enthralled over everything else. I also found the romance between the oldest boy and the whatever it was to be rather interesting.

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  7. this sounds like something I'd try on a rainy day. thanks for the review!