Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel
Sarah Beth Durst’s over two dozen books include writings for children, teenagers, and adults, many in the fantasy genre. Among the prolific author’s works are The Bone Maker, The Deepest Blue, The Stone Girl’s Story, and Even and Odd (all reviewed in this paper). With The Lake House (HarperTeen), Durst has crafted a first-rate young adult thriller.
The novel follows three teenagers sent to an “enrichment retreat” in Maine, a place to “learn new skills, have new experiences, make new friends.” Claire Dreyer is the center: “Claire excelled at three things: ballet, homework, and identifying all the ways there were to die in any given situation.” Claire’s self-awareness is both insightful and crippling. “[She] thought longingly of her bedroom with all her books and a door that closed everyone out.” Ultimately, she hopes the opportunity to be “a new Claire here, a never-before-seen version of herself who made friends easily and didn’t freak out about every little thing.”
Two contemporaries join Claire. The pessimistic Reyva Chaudhari doesn’t “do performative emotions.” But, after some prodding, she discloses her passion: Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting—an endeavor that turns out to be of great value. Reyva’s wry humor and tendency to find amusement in the darker possibilities contrasts with Claire’s need for constant order. Mariana Ortiz-Rodriguez, a Californian transplant, is the perkiest of the three. Fascinated by cars and engines, her skills become vital in the climax.
All three share complex backgrounds with various parental pressures and complicated home lives. Their parents make choices they perceive as good for their offspring but often fail consideration of their children’s emotional needs. As they venture forward, the girls reveal secrets, voicing fears they have never previously shared. Their vulnerability strengthens their bond, allowing for a genuine evolution of well-placed trust.
Insightfully—and with no malice—Mariana evaluates Reyva: “My guess: your parents have opinions on what you’re allowed to feel, as well as what you do, and so you respond by controlling what you show the world. Do you want us to think nothing phases you? Fact is, you care a lot, and you’re terrified that someone will realize it and use it against you. Like, you know, I’m doing right now.”
The girls arrive at the end of June, planning to remain through the end of August. A young man, Jack, takes them to the island on his boat, leaving them on the shore. They hike the short distance up a trail to discover the Lake House burned, with the charred remains still smoking. With no cell service or communication with the outside world, the trio contemplates their short- and long-term fates. They discover a dead body in the surrounding woods: a woman dead from a gunshot from an unknown assailant.
Secluded in a national forest, miles from civilization, they face natural trials: dehydration, starvation, insects, and weather. Additionally, they must accept that they are not alone and are targets of one or even two dangerous island inhabitants.
Eventually, Durst introduces a fascinating supernatural element. The malevolence merges a camp ghost legend and the concept of “the sins of the father.” Their struggle combines “the strain of the lack of food, and the constant supply of fear.”
Durst quickly ratchets up the tension, plunging into a face-paced narrative fraught with challenges and revelations. Fortunately, she writes about people, not tropes. As in all her work, the characters have dimension and texture—recognizable but individual.
While The Lake House is a thriller, it portrays perseverance and rising to extraordinary circumstances. The story lives not in the isolation of Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet or the savagery of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. It avoids the world of Mean Girls and Robinson Crusoe. Instead, the book celebrates the ability to thrive on mutual reliance. The mantra is “stick together, and we’ll survive,” and Claire, Reyva, and Mariana grow because they see themselves through the eyes of others—companions who value their potential.
The Lake House offers three strong young women facing a range of demons, both personal and real, in a location that is both doom and destiny. Finally, they learn, “I am enough exactly as I am.” Durst, a gifted storyteller, neatly balances thrills and introspection in this entertaining and engaging story.
Sarah Beth Durst is the award-winning author of over twenty books for kids, teens, and adults. She lives in Stony Brook with her husband, her children, and her ill-mannered cat. Pick up a copy of The Lake House online at www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com. For more information, visit www.sarahbethdurst.com.