Author: Kate Mosse (no, not the model–that would be Kate Moss)
Genre: Fiction (quasi-mystery/horror)
Publication Date: 2007
Purchase Price: $16.00 (paperback); I got a hardback on sale for $6.98
Misc. Info.: From the author of the bestseller Labyrinth
Looking back, perhaps the fact that I found this week’s book in the discount bin for seven bucks should have been a clue. It really sucks when you spend money on a book, only to have it be disappointing.
Okay, so Sepulchre wasn’t a total disappointment — after all, there are four great kick-ass quotes at the bottom of this review, and there is lots of talk about music. But for all that…a reader probably won’t miss much if they skip this particular novel. It’s not even that the book is bad; it’s just…”eh.” But just to be fair, let’s jot down some plot.
Leonie and Anatole Vernier are living with their mother, Marguerite, in Paris in 1891. After getting caught up in a riot at the opera house, the siblings get some supper and chat about their neighbor, Claude Debussy (yea, that Debussy). During the conversation we learn more about the reasoning behind the riots (Wagner’s music was rather hated by the French at that time), as well as the fact that Anatole has been acting strange lately. He’s had some trouble with someone spreading vicious rumors about him, and when Leonie tries to learn more from her brother, he brushes her off. At this point the reader already knows about the death of Anatole’s lover, and Leonie believes that he is simply still healing. The two head home.
Sometime later, Anatole is attacked and beaten, and is still recovering when Marguerite’s sister-in-law writes, asking for Leonie to come visit. Isolde is the widow of Marguerite’s (much older) brother, and she lives out in the countryside of France. The two parts of the family have never been close, and the reader learns that while Marguerite grew up in the Domaine de la Cade, she never felt comfortable there, and has since avoided visiting or even speaking of the place, or her childhood. Leonie is convinced to go by Anatole, who is eager to get away from Paris and all his recent difficulties there.
It is only once the siblings get to Domaine de la Cade that Leonie begins to see why Marguerite was so unhappy there. The people believe that the house is cursed — there have been attacks on people by a mysterious clawed beast, and the rumor is that Isolde’s late husband somehow conjured a demon. It is when Leonie finds an abandoned sepulcher with mysterious tarot paintings on the walls, that events trigger. At the same time, a man named Victor Constant is intent on getting his revenge on the man who stole his lover from him.
Flash forward to 2007. Meredith Martin has traveled from America to France, doing research for her biography of Claude Debussy (same Debussy). She’s essentially got the book done, so she tries to follow up on some of the nitpicky details that interest her, but aren’t really necessary to the book. Meredith has read somewhere that Lily Debussy (Debussy’s first wife) had spent some time at the Domaine de la Cade.
But Meredith also has other reasons. With her she carries three old photographs and a piece of sheet music with a handwritten notation: Sepulchre 1891. These are the only things she has inherited from her birth mother, and she wants to see if she can find out more about her family.
But a troubling tarot card reading, followed by lots of coincidences and puzzles, puts Meredith into a place where the past and the present begin to fuse together. The novel switches back and forth through time, slowly bringing Meredith and Leonie into parallel lives.
There were a couple of difficulties that were easy to point out. For example, there were lots of plot lines going on:
- Anatole’s difficulties with slander and getting beaten up
- Marguerite’s not wanting to talk about her childhood
- Leonie’s transformation from innocent girl to adult
- The mystery of the Domaine de la Cade and the Bosquet tarot deck
- Victor Constant’s evil/vicious quest to punish his former lover
- Meredith’s biography of Debussy
- Meredith’s history of adoption and family history of insanity
- Julian Lawrence’s obsession with finding the Bosquet deck
- Hal Lawrence’s obsession with ferreting out what exactly happened to his father
- Meredith’s getting involved with the Bosquet deck
It’s true that many of these plot lines are interrelated, or come together as the book comes closer to its conclusion. But there’s still lots going on, and some of the content seemed a little unnecessary. It’s not generally wise to skip over portions of a book, but I must admit to some skimming.
I had difficulty pinpointing exactly what felt “off” about Sepulchre until I read the reviews of it on the Barnes and Noble website. Customers can post reviews of books online, and one person hit the nail on the head:
“Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth [the author’s first novel] was excellent. Sepulchre follows the same formula with less vibrant characters.”
And that’s what it was. The characters are flat. The only real connected I felt was to Leonie Vernier (which is fortunate, since she is a major character). Almost all of them felt underdeveloped and dull: even Victor Constant could have done with a bit more explanation — a window into why he has become obsessed and evil would have been helpful, or even just interesting.
There’s also the matter of loose plot ends regarding Meredith and her family. Although the reader knows why Isolde is driven insane, we never really learn why Meredith’s mother ended up committing suicide. Is the reader to assume that Meredith’s mother also experienced a traumatic loss, or are we to believe that—just like her ancestors—she saw things and heard voices? Several times throughout the book, Meredith tells herself that she is not her mother — she’s seeing things too, but it turns out that what she is seeing is real. The Domaine de la Cade is a haunted place, and there really are demons. So did Meredith’s mother see the demons that her ancestors had unleashed?
I believe that Mosse meant for the reader to come to this last conclusion, but she certainly wasn’t very verbose about it. It is only in writing this review that a possible explanation for this loose end has popped into my head. As a reader it can be supremely annoying to be fed every single detail, but in this case, I think the author could have been more explicit.
Another reviewer hits upon something that has reverberations throughout the entire writing world:
“…why does [Mosse], along with so many other authors, feel that the female leading character [is validated] only if she is drop-dead beautiful!”
This sentence could have an entire blog entry all to itself. Diary scribbles, articles, books, and rants have been written about this sort of thing, and rather than going into extensive detail about something that is not terribly closely related, I will say this: It is a sad thing when a female—or indeed any—character is written “perfect.”
A character that has no flaws is doomed to destruction, because no one wants to read about a perfect person. So it can often be irritating when all of the female characters out there are characterized as “beautiful.” There is nothing wrong with being so, but having books full of such things is repetitive, annoying, and makes us “normal” people feel as if we are not worthy of love, adventure, or to have a book written about us. Just a thought.
To quote this week’s book: Enfin.
As in, at last — this book is finally over.
“She lifted the lid on the pot of steaming coffee, releasing the delicious aroma of freshly roasted beans, like a genie from a lamp. Beside the silver pot stood a jug of frothy warm milk, a bowl of white sugar cubes and a pair of silver tongs. She lifted the pressed linen napkin to discover a plate of white bread, the golden crust warm to the touch, and a dish of creamy whipped butter. There were three different jams in individual china dishes and a bowl of quince and apple compote.” (pp. 189-190)
“The darkness without seemed almost to be alive. It was, at last, a relief when the storm struck. The very sky itself began to growl and shudder. Brilliant and jagging forked lightning ripped silver through the black clouds. Thunder clapped, bellowed, ricocheted off rock and branch, echoing between the valleys.” (p. 230)
” ‘For my part, I can tell you only that attitudes change over time. What one century holds as fact, another will see as heresy.’ ” (p. 245)
” ‘There is no pattern the human mind can devise that does not exist already within the bounds of nature,’ he said. ‘Everything we do, see, write, notate, all are an echo of the deep seams of the universe. Music is the invisible world made visible through sound.’ ” (p. 247)
Just a quick update on what the next week or so is gonna look like. I’ve got a two-part series involving Phantom of the Opera, as well as a poetry post. Keep your eyes peeled for more great stuff!