Recent Reading: The Lake House by Sarah Beth Durst

Okay, so I guess I was in the mood for a lightly suspenseful YA novel with supernatural elements, so I read The Lake House.

What we’ve got here is a survival story with a supernatural evil entity added to the ordinary problems of surviving in the Maine woods in the summer. We’ve got three girls who were supposed to be staying at a summer camp for a month or two, but they get there and find the house burned down and a woman’s body in the woods. They don’t discover that until the boat that dropped them off has disappeared into the distance. This is, you might say, a problem. Claire is the pov protagonist. You may remember her from this beginning here:

Clair excelled at three things: ballet, homework, and identifying all the ways there were to die in any given situation. Like now, on this boat. She couldn’t stop thinking about how easy it would be to be knocked off the side, hit your head as you fell, and drown.

Less likely: being guillotined by a fishing ine.

Also unlikely but still possible: being pierced by shrapnel if the engine exploded.

She fidgeted with her life jacket, touching the three buckles in rapid succession, until she felt reassured they were secure.

I hate boats, she decided.

She also hated airplanes, particularly the minuscule prop planes that felt as if they’d been assembled by a five-year-old with unfettered access to glue. That had been the other option for the trip to the Lake House — itty-bitty prop plane. There were no roads.

Apparently I was in the mood for a story like this because I read it promptly. It had a lot going for it – tension, but not too much tension; quick pace; relatively simply story; relatively simple characters; therefore easy to read and engaging without being so distracting that I couldn’t put it down.

So, what did I think of it?

The Characters:

Claire is a fine protagonist. Not particularly complex. She thinks of herself as a pessimist, which she sort of is. Actually, she tends to catastrophize and then have panic attacks, so that’s not exactly the same as pessimism. She is also a problem solver. She thinks of all the things that could conceivably go wrong and then she thinks of what to do about those things.

So Claire has this problem: panic attacks. She has a bigger problem: her parents get frantic when she has a panic attack. The panic attacks constitute a secret she is very uncomfortable revealing. Her parents’ inability to handle that problem in a sensible way make Claire feel this is a hopelessly dire problem rather than something to handle sensibly. Not that I’m judgmental. Wait, I am totally judgmental, because I think the parents are extroverts and they are trying to force Claire, an introvert, to be extroverted. This is not said in so many words, but it definitely seems like that to me. That really annoys me, so I am not willing to cut Claire’s parents a lot of slack. Especially since they accidentally sent their kid to a haunted summer camp.

The other two girls are Reyva and Mariana. Reyva is tough. She has been competing in some kind of mixed martial arts, a division for little kids, since she was a little kid. She is not magic, however, which means that she is a teenage girl, not Batman in disguise. I don’t think the ages of the girls are stated outright, but I got the impression they are young teens, like fourteen. Reyva has, by the way, a secret she is very uncomfortable revealing. Mariana is good with engines and other mechanical things. She is flashy and pretty and knows how to flirt. She has, you will not be surprised to learn, a secret she is very uncomfortable revealing.

The Plot:

So then these girls get to the camp, the house has burned down, everyone else is presumed dead, they find this woman’s body and assume that was the camp director. She’s been shot, by the way, not burned to death in the house fire. The boat is long gone. They have supplies, but that’s things like clothes, not things like waterproof matches or a field guide to the Wild Edibles of Maine.

Then things go wrong, and more wrong, and more wrong. The reader probably suspects supernatural evil pretty early, even without reviews and hints. However, there are unexpected plot twists sprinkled through the story, Even if the astute reader sees A LOT OF THINGS COMING, which is certainly likely, I don’t think the reader is going to see ALL the things.

The story is fast paced and fun, if you like MG/YA supernatural suspense. The Grrrl Power message is pretty heavy-handed, but, I mean, as messages go, that one is not disagreeable. I enjoyed the story. I see one review says the survival skills of the girls seem over the top. I disagree. I thought their struggles to find food and shelter seemed quite believable. Other things seemed possibly over the top instead.


As you know, I have low (really, really low) tolerance for character stupidity. Now, I grant, if you live in the Real World, then supernatural evil entities are not going to be on your top ten list of possible problems. I don’t fault the girls for not picking up on that until there is absolutely no possible way to miss it. When the girls come up with a reasonable explanation for what’s going on, it’s not a stupid explanation. It’s actually a pretty plausible explanation. So I think all this is fine.

Here are the things that did bother me:

  • There are no bodies and no evidence of bodies, other than the woman who has been shot. There is not the slightest sign of the presumed other kids who supposedly died in the fire. Granted, the house burned pretty thoroughly. But … none of the other kids got out? None of them? There are no signs that other kids were ever there. None.
  • The outbuildings and the little landing strip for tiny planes look run down and derelict, not refurbished as one might expect with a summer camp that is just reopening now after being closed for a long time.
  • There is a trapdoor in one of the outbuildings, with a ladder, that leads down to a hidden-ish room that contains a cage. In the cage, there are shackles. That is the word used: Shackles. The girls, exploring, look at this and conclude that maybe someone was keeping a dog or wolf or bear, and not being at all nice to the poor animal. How, you may ask, can they possibly think for one second of that explanation? How many people use shackles to confine a dog, wolf, or bear? Raise your hand if you have ever heard the word “shackles” used in a non-metaphorical way when the word meant anything at all other than shackling a human prisoner. Anybody?

Right, I didn’t think so.

Later, when the girls are told outright that the camp never reopened, that it has been derelict for 20 years, that no other kids were present when the house burned, they don’t seem to entertain for even a second that this might be true, although it is obviously true.

I don’t want to go into details, but the girls also miss various other obvious things. It’s just stunning how long it takes them to think shackles = prisoner. Granted, I was also wrong about who put those shackles there and why, but at least I didn’t think anybody put shackles in place to confine a dog or wolf. Let me just add that there are plenty of words that could have been used instead of “shackles” that might have obfuscated the situation a bit better, such as “chains.”

Okay. Moving on.

Other Quibbles:

You are stranded without supplies on an island in the middle of the Maine woods. You are worried about possible bacterial contamination of the lake water. You refuse to drink lake water or even the water in fast-running streams. This dedicated refusal to drink the extremely abundant water lasts until:

a) You are thirsty.

b) For day after day, even while you are severely dehydrated.

Anybody pick (b)? Does anybody find (b) remotely plausible? I realize I am perhaps in the unusual position of having gone camping in Canada for a month, on a canoe trip, in which everyone drank the lake water without boiling it and nobody got sick. My concern about bacterial contamination of the water of a vast lake in Maine is therefore perhaps somewhat lower than the next person’s. However, nobody, and I mean nobody, is going to suffer serious dehydration when there is a vast lake full of crystal-clear, cold, sweet water sitting right there, never mind streams.

    This bothered me pretty much all the time while I was reading the story. Sorry. I realize this is an idiosyncratic reaction. However, I assure you that if you are ever running for your life from madmen with guns, or zombies, or ancient evil spirits, or any other dire danger, in a cold climate, it’s almost certainly fine to drink the water. Especially since dehydration will weaken you a whole lot faster than most bacterial illnesses. You aren’t going to get cholera way out in the Maine woods because nobody with cholera is around to contaminate the water. Things like giardia, while unpleasant, are far less debilitating than dehydration, and you aren’t particularly likely to catch that anyway.

    Overall Reaction:

    A fun story! Grrrl Power, yay! I did genuinely like the three girls and their friendship and the way they supported each other. Sure, the characters are a little simplistic, but they suit the story and the style, which is an important consideration that I think sometimes isn’t sufficiently appreciated. I’m thinking here of the paper-flat characters in Mary Doria Russell’s Sparrow and Children of God, which so perfectly suit the story Russell is telling there. That’s perhaps a different blog post. Also, I should add that the worst things I’ve ever read in SFF occur in that duology, so I am not necessarily suggesting you rush out and read it. My point here is that this story is well put together, fast, fun, and enjoyable. The reader is likely to cheer for the girls as they pull together and cope with one dire problem after another. I liked the ending and then the denouement.

    If you have a twelve- to fourteen-year-old girl around and she likes suspense and adventure stories, here you go, I think this story is probably just about perfect for that group of readers. If you are in the mood for a MG/YA suspense and adventure story that centers friendship, again, here you go; I bet you will enjoy this story.

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    2 thoughts on “Recent Reading: The Lake House by Sarah Beth Durst”

    1. Okay, I haven’t read this story, but seriously with the dehydration: if there are multiple fast-running streams and you’re close to the source of said stream, assuming there is no obvious visible critter scat in or around the water, you can probably drink it without dying or even getting particularly sick. Yeah, giardia is not fun, but dehydration kills far faster than any possible bacterial infection. And assuming you survive the supernatural horror show, most bacterial infections can be treated. That would be a secondary concern in that situation, in my opinion.

    2. I’m glad you read this and liked it, and I’m glad you reviewed it, because that cover would have put me off it entirely, and if I managed to get near the book to read the blurb, it wouldn’t have changed my mind! I’m still not a hundred percent sure I’ll try this one; there are certainly others of hers I’ll get to first.

      My rule when backpacking is if I can see the snow the stream melted from, then I’ll drink it. I realize that there is no particular logic behind this rule, but I’ve been drinking from mountain streams for 40 years and I’ve never gotten giardia. (Maybe all that unfiltered water has given me really strong gut flora!)

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