A book about a murder on summer vacation, just in time for summer vacation! Also: ghosts.
The brief prologue to Rebecca Kauffman’s new novel, The House on Fripp Island, is written in the voice of a ghost — a murder victim — and reveals that the coroner has mischaracterized the murder as an accidental drowning. Twenty years on, the deceased, whoever he or she might be, doesn’t seem to mind very much being dead because being a ghost allows the thoughts and memories of the living to be known and revisited.
It is an intriguing opening for an otherwise ordinary story about a typical summer vacation on a resort island, populated by a standard cast of characters and conflicts. And yet, there is the promise of that murder, plus a ghost, so we read on.
Lisa and Poppy are old friends from Wheeling, West Virginia, whose lives have taken very different paths. Lisa is restless and unhappily married to a wealthy lawyer in Warrenton, Virginia, a distant suburb of Washington, D.C., while Poppy is content back in Wheeling with her construction-worker husband, even though money is always tight. Lisa has two young daughters and Poppy has a daughter and a teenage son. When Lisa’s husband wins a vacation getaway in a raffle, they invite Poppy and her family to join them at a huge beach house on Fripp Island, South Carolina, a place filled with luxury that Poppy is unaccustomed to and that Lisa takes for granted. Golf, booze, fishing, swimming, and sunburns ensue.
The novel is at its best in scenes that show characters interacting with each other in ways that expose the tensions between them. In one memorable moment, Poppy’s son, Ryan, accompanies Lisa’s daughters to see a moon jellyfish swarm on the beach. “[Rae] was horrified when she finally looked Kimmy’s way . . . and discovered that Kimmy was stuffing two jellyfish down the front of her swimsuit, placing them right over her nonexistent breasts. Kimmy massaged them theatrically through her swimsuit and did a little dance. ‘They’re like those things you put on in front of the mirror the other day,’ Kimmy gleefully pointed out to Rae. . . ‘You know, those chicken cutlet things Mom keeps in her underwear drawer. You put them in your bra. I saw you.’” Fourteen-year-old Rae, who can barely hide her crush on seventeen-year-old Ryan, is deeply embarrassed, and rebukes her sister: “’Kimmy, you’re a liar and an idiot,’ Rae said in a tone laced with venom. Kimmy’s happy laughter ceased immediately, and she looked like she had been slapped.” Ryan, a sensitive boy who nonetheless enjoys looking at pictures of women’s breasts in his stash of Playboy magazines, is also embarrassed and can only look away. The exchange provides a wonderful insight into the girls’ relationships as well as Ryan’s character.
The book is less engaging, however, in Kauffman’s long passages of summary, filling in details that may or may not be necessary to an understanding of the central characters or plot. For example, we do need to know something about a local maintenance man who is shunned by Lisa because his name is on the local registry of sex offenders, but the delivery of that information could have been more effective.
While the characters are somewhat familiar types, all of them — with the possible exception of Kimmy, the youngest and most innocent — have secrets that at least make them interesting to observe. Rae, Lisa’s older daughter, is obsessed with boys and reads trashy novels. Ryan, Poppy’s handsome, studious son, has his reasons to be out until dawn on the family’s first night on the island. His sister, Alex, formerly known as Alexis, is a tomboy who, her parents believe, may be considering a gender transition. Poppy is a secret smoker, and her husband is worried about the painkillers he has to take for his back problems, not to mention his unpaid medical bills. Lisa is thinking of leaving her rich husband who, she suspects, has been having an affair. And her husband’s multiple secrets are behind his perpetual foul mood.
These secrets are great for building suspense and maintaining interest. They keep us reading. But do they add up to murder? While the crime, when it finally happens at the novel’s climax, delivers on the promise of the prologue, revealing who killed whom, it is a rushed disappointment built on a shallow foundation. Everything that comes after also feels rushed, as the book’s denouement describes the lives of the survivors twenty years on with little understanding of what happened or why.
And what about the ghosts? The ghost of the murder victim does make a return appearance, and throughout the book there are references to ghosts and the local ghostly legends, but they don’t make much of an impact on the story. The victim’s ghost certainly drew me into the novel, but the story didn’t quite deliver on its promise.
The House On Fripp Island
By Rebecca Kauffman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Published June 2, 2020