Hester Young’s debut novel, The Gates of Evangeline, in which recently divorced Charlotte “Charlie” Cates feels her journalism career and life are stagnant after the sudden death of her young son, is part thriller, part romance, and part treatise on the magical power of grief.
On returning to work after her loss, Charlie receives an offer to write a true crime book about the unsolved 1980s disappearance of Gabriel Deveau, the younger son of an old southern family in Chicory, Louisiana. Initially reluctant to leave her Connecticut home and aging grandmother, Charlie becomes convinced that she is the only person who can solve the mystery when she starts having vivid premonition dreams about lost, sick, and hurt children, including Gabriel.
When she arrives in Chicory, however, Charlie discovers that not all members of the Deveau family want her stirring up trouble, not least because their mother is dying of cancer. As Charlie settles into life in the rural swamplands, she encounters characters who reveal that life on the Deveau estate is not as it seems and people with secrets will labor to keep them hidden. For the first time in a long time, though, Charlie feels alive. Her journalistic impulses compel her to parse fact from fiction so as to get to the bottom of Gabriel’s disappearance.
Just as she’s hitting her stride, Charlie meets Noah, a rugged landscaper with old connections to the Deveau family. Sparks fly. Against her better judgement, Charlie finds herself attracted to Noah. Yet, Charlie is astute enough to realize that no one, not even Noah, can evade suspicion. In fact, as she gets deeper into the stories about Gabriel, the Deveau family, and the town of Chicory, Charlie begins to question Noah’s motive for helping her.
While The Gates of Evangeline is a thriller somewhere between John Grisham and Stieg Larsson—it’s sort of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets the Lindbergh baby case—the book also succeeds as an examination of the magical power of grief. After her son’s death, Charlie is open to other stories of loss, sickness, and dangers that children face. This magical thinking influences her choices and makes her more empathetic toward others in a way that she might not have been before the tragedy. Whether you believe in ghosts and premonitions or not, the author understands that a grieving mind takes turns that its more rational process might dismiss. For Charlie, some of these turns prompt her to ask questions and perhaps solve the mystery.
The Gates of Evangeline will keep you turning pages, staying up late and entertained poolside. The author certainly emphasizes regional, class, and sexual tropes, but her characters’ perceptions seem genuine in a book that never takes itself too seriously. If you’re looking for a good, fast-paced thriller set in the gothic charm of an old southern community, this might be the book for you.
The Gates of Evangeline by Hester Young (G.P. Putnam’s Sons | 9780399174001 | September 1, 2015)