The Mill River Recluse
Disfigured by the blow of an abusive husband, the widow Mary McAllister has spent almost sixty years secluded in a white marble mansion overlooking the town of Mill River, Vermont. Her links to the outside world are few: the mail, an elderly priest, and a bedroom window with a view of the town below.
Most longtime residents of Mill River consider the marble house and its occupant peculiar, and few of them have ever seen Mary. But three newcomers – a police officer and his daughter and a new schoolteacher – are curious about the reclusive old woman. Only the town priest truly knows the Mill River recluse, and the secret she keeps… a secret that, once revealed, will change the town, and the lives of its residents, forever.
Immediately my interest was piqued by the opening line of The Mill River Recluse: ‘As she gazed out the bay window in her bedroom, Mary McAllister knew this night would be her last.’
Mary McAllister had been widowed 60 years previously, and is imprisoned by a debilitating anxiety disorder which prevents her from mixing with strangers or leaving the house, an activity which always resulted in her suffering crippling panic attacks. She has lived all those years watching out over the small Vermont town of Mill River, coming to care protectively about the residents even though she had never met most of them – apart from the kindly priest, Father Michael O’Brien. But most of the residents of Mill River sadly look upon her as an oddball, the crazy old lady with one eye who lives in the huge white marble mansion that dominated their small town. They mock her and invent cruel, untrue tales about her.
We are introduced to the prominent townsfolk: police officers Hansen and Underwood patrolling the streets of Mill River during a vicious snow storm. Elementary school teacher, Claudia Simons who has recently moved to Mill River to rid herself of past demons. Jean Wykowski, Mary McAllister’s nurse who is also awake that night worrying about the old lady who she knows does not have long left to live, as she is currently battling pancreatic cancer. Daisy Delaine, dubbed as the local crazy lady who lives in a mobile home and another object of people’s harsh and cruel taunts. And we meet Father O’Brien, Mill River’s long serving priest and the only friend and confidante of Mrs. McAllister.
The story flicks back to the summer of 1940, where a clearly wealthy father and son, Stephen and Patrick McAllister, have set out to buy a horse for Patrick’s graduation gift. They travel to an untidy smallholding a few miles away from Rutland which looked like it had seen much better days. This is where Patrick meets, and sets his heart upon the young and beautiful Mary, whose father owns the stables.
Moving between Mary’s past and the modern day you begin to build a sickening picture of exactly what turned Mary McAllister into the recluse that she became.
The Mill River Recluse really is a tragic story, although you know from the opening line that it is not going to end well for poor Mary. I enjoyed the book immensely and was mentally prepared to give it a very secure five stars, until the ending. There is so much hype and build up to the ‘big gift and secret’ that Mary McAllister has instructed Father O’Brien to reveal to the town at the annual meeting, that my mind was racing as to what this could be. Unfortunately it turned out to be quite an anticlimax – for me at least. Without revealing the storyline, other parts of the ending did not make a huge amount of sense to me either, and also I did not feel it was tied up quite as well as it could have been.
And the byline on the cover, ‘The love story that has touched a million hearts’ – I’m still not quite sure where that part was.
Overall the book was good and well written. The ending was disappointing and the best way I can describe it is ‘pleasant’ (and highly predictable), but it would not deter me from recommending it. Parts of the story are quite harrowing, but for me that was because I felt a real bond developing with the character of Mary – I felt the hurt with her, which to me is all kudos to Darcie Chan’s writing.
Thanks to Madeleine at Little Brown for sending me this book to review.