"a good base for the series to build upon"
Book One of the Waxwood series
Set in the San Francisco Bay area of the US in 1892, this is the first of the Waxwood series. The Alderdice family are socially important, and the funeral of the doyenne, Penelope, is therefore to be managed perfectly by her daughter, Larissa. Although Alderdice himself is no longer in full command of his reason, everything must be organised as befits the family of a shipping magnate. Vivian, Penelope's granddaughter, baulks against her mother's correct but coldly unemotional approach.
Before the funeral Larissa receives a letter from one Bertha Ross, claiming to be an old friend of Penelope's – though she refers to her as Grace – and saying that they knew each other years ago, as debutantes, at Waxwood. Larissa claims ignorance of the person, but is nevertheless insistent that she will not be permitted to attend the funeral.
A woman is brought into the chapel in a wheelchair, and the fear in her mother's eyes arouses Vivian's interest. Bertha Ross wears true mourning in her face, rather than the false and assumed emotions of the residents of Nob Hill. Intrigued, Vivian decides to take the train to Waxwood, and to discover what happened to Penelope/Grace in the time that she spent there, and of which no-one has ever spoken.
The town is nothing in comparison with the city. It is noted for an artists' colony on the outskirts, which is held in some suspicion by the other residents. Vivian learns that Penelope came to Waxwood to recover following her refusal of an offer of marriage. People are inexplicably wary of her, but eventually she is given a series of letters which Grace/Penelope wrote at the time. The freedom, after the stultified life of the city, and the awakening of a sense of self, are plain to see, but the letters hide a secret: the spectre of the title. It's there in a portrait of her, painted at Waxwood, but it's also a part of Vivian, who discovers that there is more of her grandmother in her than she ever knew.
In a way, this is a novel in which not much happens. It has already taken place, and Vivian is simply following a trail to find out what it is. The denouement is not that much of a surprise, and a little editing would remove some glitches and correct missing words, but it is gently told, and forms a good base for the series to build upon.
© Lorraine Swoboda