All Things Cease to Appear
On a cold February evening in 1979, George Clare knocks on his neighbor’s front door. Something terrible has happened to his wife, he explains. He returned home from his job at the local private college, where he’s a professor of art history, and found Catherine dead in their bed, an ax buried in her skull, their three-year-old daughter Franny unharmed in her room across the hall.
Naturally, the police in Chosen, the tiny upstate New York hamlet where the couple lives, suspect the husband, as well they should. George, the truly terrifying villain at the center of Elizabeth Brundage’s fourth novel, may be handsome and intelligent, but his charming exterior hides a sinister core. In this book, which is equal parts gothic horror story and edge-of-your-seat thriller, the big question isn’t really who murdered Catherine but rather why she was killed.
To get to that why, Brundage moves back in time, revealing both the truth about the Clares’ unhappy marriage and the dark history of their home, an old farmhouse with an unpleasant past. The home ---- the recent site of a double suicide --- isn’t exactly malevolent (this isn’t Hill House), but it’s tainted. Catherine senses it when she and George first visit the property. Once the couple takes up residence, she realizes she’s not alone in her new home, “that some invisible someone was standing there watching her,” though her ultra-rational husband dismisses her fears.
"ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR is an expertly crafted thriller, with vivid, dramatic set pieces...that seem ready for the big-screen treatment. But it’s also a skilled and intelligent work of literary fiction."
Catherine is right to be concerned, but it’s not ghosts she needs to worry about. Home is no sanctuary for most of the women in Brundage’s novel. Instead, it’s more like a prison. Part of a generation raised “to be good wives, to make the best of things,” Catherine sacrifices herself to her marriage, which was the result of an unplanned pregnancy, not love. Now, a few years later, George is “like a tedious splinter” in Catherine’s life, while he treats his wife with barely concealed disdain that often crosses the line into outright cruelty.
If there was ever someone in need of a good dose of feminist empowerment, it’s the meek, insecure Catherine. And she gets it, with the help of her new friend Justine, one of George’s colleagues. Justine is everything Catherine is not --- unconcerned with her appearance, comfortable with her sexuality, happy in her marriage. (Tellingly, George is equal parts repulsed and fascinated by his coworker.) With Justine’s encouragement, Catherine begins to gently push back against her controlling, abusive husband.
Just as his wife is taking tentative steps to independence, George’s life is beginning to spiral out of control. A series of lies and deceptions begins to catch up with him, and that’s when things start to get really scary. To say George is not who he appears to be is an understatement, but to reveal much more would spoil some of the book’s best, most tense scenes.
ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR is an expertly crafted thriller, with vivid, dramatic set pieces (a car chase on a dark country road; an ominous nighttime boat ride) that seem ready for the big-screen treatment. But it’s also a skilled and intelligent work of literary fiction. Through seamlessly shifting perspectives, we get to know not just George and Catherine, but also those around them, including local real estate agent Mary Lawton and Willis Howell, George’s troubled young mistress, all fascinating characters in their own right. Including these additional perspectives allows Brundage to capture the unique psychology of small-town life, where memories are long, secrets are hard to keep, and tragedy binds people together in strange ways.
The book’s main misstep comes toward the end, with a resolution that is rushed and not wholly satisfying. The George we see in these final pages, decades following his wife’s death, seems to be an almost entirely different person from the man we knew earlier. We also meet an adult Franny, now a doctor and still haunted by her mother’s murder. Unfortunately, she appears so late in the game that her character seems like an afterthought.
Yet those are minor quibbles. ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR is as insightful as it is suspenseful. Brundage’s thoughtful exploration of how people find themselves trapped in lives that don’t seem quite their own won’t satisfy all readers, especially those looking for a more traditional thriller. But those as interested in unraveling the mysteries of the human heart as they are in figuring out whodunit won’t be able to put this book down.
Reviewed by Megan Elliott on March 9, 2016