Carol Goodman: The Disinvited Guest

Carol Goodman has been killing it.  She’s writing the kind of standalone, psychologically suspenseful novels that are incredibly popular at the moment, but she’s been doing it for twenty years.  She’s a tight storyteller and a smart one, and she’s great with character and setting – in fact, she’s the whole package.  Her new novel, The Disinvited Guest, posits that we have emerged from a worldwide pandemic, albeit briefly, and been plunged into another one.  Her book is set very slightly in an unfortunately believable future.

Taking a page from Christie’s classic, And Then There Were None, she gathers her characters and puts them on a boat where they are headed to a remote island in Maine to quarantine together.  They have been quarantining, test for the virus before they get on the boat (familiar details for all of us), and when they arrive on the island their backstories begin to emerge.  Unlike Christie’s story, all of them know each other from college or as siblings or as long-standing acquaintances.  The island belongs to Reed Harper and he’s bringing along his wife, Lucy, his sister, and some college friends along with their partners/spouses.  Their guide is Mac, who has grown up with Reed, and is full of practical knowledge and skills that will help everything run smoothly.

Lucy turns out to be the central narrator, and we see everything through her eyes, as she reevaluates friendships and connections through the lens of quarantine.  She and Reed also seem to be on shaky ground though the canny Goodman keeps their relationship complicated and not-so-obvious as all that.  Lucy has been stuck after writing a first book, but when she discovers an old journal left by a previous island resident it launches her into the past and back into creativity.

The journal entries from the 1840’s form a parallel narrative of a group of passengers on a ship from Ireland who hit this area of Maine’s coast with a ship full of very ill people.  The journal writer, a young doctor, cuts his teeth on taking care of these people, along with a group of “Grey Ladies” who live on the island and who have devoted themselves to charitable nursing, running a quarantine hospital.  The island is also seemingly a nexus of witchcraft and superstition.

The present-day islanders also feel this atmosphere of witchcraft, uncertainty and mysterious happenings that begin to drive them apart as they become suspicious of one another.  As a reader you yourself begin to wonder just what might be real and what is imagined by people who are certainly under a great deal of stress. The journal entries and the present-day occurrences echo back and forth, creating a deepening atmosphere of suspense.

When bodies start to fall, the tiny cast of characters has nowhere to look but at themselves, and secrets and long misunderstandings play a huge part on how things ultimately resolve.  As in Christie’s novel, the body count in high, and the ending is pretty bleak.  This is a book to make a reader think, to keep you turning the pages, and to relish it’s richly drawn characters.  It’s another wonderful read from Goodman’s talented pen.