Starred Review, 11/23/15
Arsenault deftly shifts among three perspectives in this exquisitely creepy blend of historical true crime and modern ghost story: the conversational confession of Frances Barnett, a young mother, to her brother from a lunatic asylum in Northampton, Mass., in 1885; Frances’s diary, full of obsession with the bloody details of a popular murder case and increasing mental instability as she tries to care for a baby alone and without support; and the increasingly fearful viewpoint of Abby Olson Bernacki, who’s living in the Barnett house in Haverton, Conn., in 2014 and fighting the demons of her own past while seeking the missing pieces in the story that Frances’s diary tells, in the hope of understanding the bruises on her baby, Lucy, and the eerie hushing sound in the nursery upstairs. Arsenualt’s gift for letting readers feel the characters’ anguish from the inside while showing their irrational strangeness from the outside makes for terror that sticks.
— Publishers Weekly review online
Michele Leber, 12/1/15
From the opening pages, it’s clear that this will be a haunting novel. A newspaper account of an 1878 murder is followed by a horrible discovery by Abby Bernacki in her college dorm room in 1998. The mystery grows when Abby—now the mother of five-month-old Lucy—is awakened by strange sounds coming from the baby’s room. This leads Abby to research the nineteenth-century Barnett family house that she and her husband, Chad, recently bought. A journal kept by Frances Flinch Barnett reveals disquieting information about her daughter’s birth in 1885 and her subsequent confinement in a mental institution for what became known to her descendants as “unspeakable acts.“ Arsenault adroitly moves the narrative between accounts of Frances’ visits with her twin brother in 1885–86, Abby’s college days, Frances’ journal entries, press accounts of two nineteenth-century murder trials, and Abby’s concern for her daughter’s safety and her growing fear of staying alone with Lucy in the house when Chad is away on business. An engrossing, suspenseful mix of historical fiction and contemporary thriller, with some unexpected twists and wisdom: “We have to learn to live with our ghosts.”
Arsenault (What Strange Creatures, 2014, etc.) immerses readers in the grisly past of a New England town as one modern-day woman is caught in the grip of her home’s history.
In 2014, high school history teacher and new mom Abby Bernacki worries over “odd” happenings in her 19th-century house, such as her baby daughter’s mysterious bruise. After consulting with a past owner, Abby obtains a historic resident’s journal and befriends a local archivist, who introduces her to a trove of puzzling artifacts. In 1878, another new mother who lived in the house, Frances Barnett, was ordered to a month’s “rest” in bed to cure her nervous condition. Once she’s out of bed, Frances fakes enthusiasm for domestic tasks while concealing from her husband her obsession with the trial of a gruesome murderer. The historic parts of the novel draw on the tale of a real-life 1879 murder and trial, even including several real New York Times articles that covered the story. Readers will squirm at the courtroom scenes involving a removed and preserved face and experiments with arsenic and donated stomachs. In another bit of historical accuracy, Frances toils in the Northampton Lunatic Hospital in Massachusetts, which at the time turned a profit on the work of its residents. The novel consists of three threads: Abby’s 2014 perspective, where she reads notes Frances kept in a cooking journal in 1878; Frances’ mental-hospital monologue to her visiting brother in 1885; and the 1998 death of a college student in Abby’s dorm. The college thread is minimally developed and seems incidental, until it ties in as the foundation of an emotionally satisfying ending. Abby’s and Frances’ mirrored stories are the stars of the show; despite their very different circumstances, both women are humbled by the pressures of new motherhood before they find empowerment in the hunt for justice.
A striking reminder that today’s domesticity is not too far removed from that of the 19th century.
— Kirkus review online
Emily Arsenault’s The Evening Spider is a good old-fashioned gothic novel with a modern twist; a tale of dusty old journals, creaky houses, and ghostly whispers that also addresses real issues such as survivor guilt and postpartum depression. Still, Arsenault never strays from the task at hand, which is to keep you up all night with a light burning until you reach the surprising end.
Fascinating (true!) historical mystery told in diary/epistolary format, interspersed with contemporary 1st person narration, both about newly married women with infants living in the same house. Sounds complicated, but it wasn’t once I got into it – then it ended up keeping me turning pages late into the night! Loved, loved, loved how it all turned out.