The flooding of a New England town sets the stage for this endlessly inventive gothic novel, an overstuffed, antic and spooky effort by veteran editor and award-winning novelist Landis (Longing; Lying in Bed). In 1938, strong-minded Mount Holyoke student Sarianna Chase Renway answers an advertisement for a female tutor, which leads her to Greenwich, Mass. The town is nearly deserted, soon to be submerged beneath the waters of a reservoir. Sarianna, a devoted reader of Emily Dickinson, gets a poetic thrill from the impending destruction; the queer atmosphere is heightened by the eccentricities of her employers, the willful Rev. Jeremy Treat and his lovely, ethereal wife, Una (Sarianna's charge is 11-year-old Jimmy, a preternaturally gifted child). The Treats are at once archly playful and overpoweringly seductive, and Sarianna is soon drawn into a complex and increasingly surreal romantic drama. Una yearns for her first true love, Ethan Vear, who was perhaps her half-brother; he disappeared when Una, already pregnant with Jimmy, betrayed Ethan with Jeremy Treat. A new cycle of betrayal begins as Sarianna—her identity at times blurring with Una's—rouses the passion of Jeremy and falls in love with Ethan, whom she discovers living in the forest with his elderly father, Simeon. Life and death are fluid states in this clever, intricately plotted novel, and identity little more than a temporary marker. The droll, unexpected asides—Ethan, for example, teaches Sarianna the techniques of skinning game and preparing it for dinner—are alone worth the price of admission. By turns coy and florid but never dull, this is excellent literary entertainment. (Oct. 3)
Forecast:Landis's fans will love this Jamesian fantasy; booksellers might recommend it to readers who enjoyed Sarah Waters's similarly clever Fingersmith.