Let’s kick off the new year with a little genre math: Southern gothic + romance = winning formula!
Kristin Wright’s debut novel, Lying Beneath the Oaks, checks all my boxes for a great romantic suspense: richly developed characters, engaging suspense, satisfying romance. And to top it off, it’s set in the South Carolina lowcountry, the place of my birth. Winning!
Wright weaves a handful of highly successful elements of southern gothic literature into this suspense, like the return of a buried secret from the past that corrodes the present, and nobody wanting to admit it. Hell, it’s even got a slaughterhouse tableau. The south has a memory as deep as the roots of an heirloom Oak, y’all, and not all of our dirty secrets are duked out in the media.
“Why would you do this for a total stranger? The plane ticket? Taking me home to meet your family?”
His brows met in confusion, then his gaze dropped sheepishly. “Well, as you say, you’re a stranger, but you’re also my wife, for the moment at least, and you seem kind of … lost, maybe. Like not enough people have taken good care of you in your life. It won’t hurt me a bit to do that a few days until we get all this mess straight, and like I said, the annulment will be easier if we can go to the lawyer together and just get it done.”
The setup is a crowd-pleaser: Molly Todd wakes up in a car in a parking lot in Las Vegas, hungover and wearing a wedding band … next to a handsome man wearing a matching wedding band and hangover, with only a vague recollection of the preceding days. It’s a good thing Cooper Middleton is a good guy, because things could’ve gone, well, south, very quickly. But the mystery of how Molly and Cooper wound up married is not the focus of the book. The secrets that Molly is keeping are.
I was the kind of person a gentleman like Cooper would cross the street to avoid.
As Molly and Cooper spend their time in the lowcountry, she finds herself more and more charmed by the man she’s temporarily calling husband. His home and his land call to her, offering some semblance of comfort and camaraderie as she works out her problems beneath the canopy of the grand sentinels. The dichotomy between her tough life and experiences, and the kindness of Cooper and his traditional southern upbringing is glaring, and a heavy burden to Molly. She’s at once wrapped in the warmth of the man who knows her to be lost and shrouded in secrets, and burdened with keeping repressed the violence and truth of her past that wants to be revealed with every heartbeat. And let me tell you, Molly’s secret isn’t the biggest threat.
There were repercussions for acting on impulse, though. I’d learned long ago to shut that down. I owed him the truth.
This is one of the lighter suspenses I’ve read in a while, but it’s really enjoyable. Wright uses the lowcountry setting to lull the reader into a lassitude of comfort, much like Molly, so you don’t see the monster lurking in the dark until it’s almost too late. The romance that develops between Cooper and Molly is believable, and the gothic atmosphere makes me feel like I’m home.