Review: “The Invited,” Jennifer McMahon

Pros: Fantastic sense of place and wonderful characters
Rating: 5 out of 5

Jennifer McMahon’s The Invited: A Novel introduces us to Helen and her husband Nate, circa 2015. They’re both teachers–Helen’s a historian–and they’ve gotten it into their heads to build themselves a house in the country. They move from Connecticut to Vermont, purchasing a tract of land with a bog on it. Of course they’re utterly unaware of the land’s history: a woman who lived there in the 1920s, Hattie, was hanged as a witch. Helen takes to picking up bits of historical material (such as beams, bricks, and a fireplace mantle) to use in the house–only these items carry remnants of the past with them. She isn’t moving into a haunted house–she’s building one from scratch! Nate refuses to believe Helen when she sees Hattie’s ghost, and Helen has trouble believing Nate when he starts obsessing over an albino deer he keeps tracking. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Olive, who lives down the road, wants her new neighbors gone. Legend has it Hattie left a treasure behind in the bog, and Olive aims to find it. Her mother left her and her father a year ago, and she’s sure that if she can just find the treasure, her mother will return.

The depiction of Vermont feels oh-so-real. I grew up in Vermont, and this put me right back there: the dismissal of outsiders as “flatlanders” (even if the outsiders came from someplace more mountainous they’d still be called flatlanders), the groans about mud season, and the smell of the dairy farm down the road. All things that take me right back. The descriptions are evocative, and the sense of place is fantastic.

The characters are wonderful, and often have little surprises for the reader. Nate is a big science buff, and really doesn’t want to believe in Hattie’s ghost or anything else strange going on–but he can’t seem to get his albino deer captured on film. Helen didn’t start out believing in ghosts, but she trusts her own senses when strange things happen. Olive starts out hating Helen and Nate, but her situation gradually becomes much more nuanced. Her Aunt Riley, a bit of a ghost hunter with blue hair and tattoos, takes an interest in Helen and Hattie and brings some life to things.

The plot, too, has its twists and turns. Just when I think I know what’s going on, something new comes to light. I found the story totally satisfying, with plenty of danger and creepy occurrences. This is the second story I’ve read by McMahon, and both were very good, so I can’t wait to read more!

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