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Book Review: St. Charles at Dusk. An suspenseful, atmospheric love story

Synopsis:  At twenty-one years old, Oz Sullivan is unable to understand his fascination with and attraction to a much younger Adrienne Deschanel. Adrienne is spirited, passionate, and impulsive… all of the things Oz is not. Oz is drawn to her in a way that is inexplicable to him, and deeply concerning to those who know him.

Amidst her father’s threats, Adrienne makes secret plans to run away with Oz. Before they can act on them, Adrienne and her family are involved in a tragic accident that takes the lives of the entire family. Adrienne’s body, however, is not found in the wreckage. Oz is devastated and unable to move on when an extensive investigation fails to solve the mystery of Adrienne’s vanishing.

Three years later Oz has made a life for himself as an attorney at his family’s law firm. However, the predictability and peace of his quiet life is shattered when Adrienne is discovered, alive and well…but with no memory of anything before the accident. Oz is conflicted: grateful that she is alive but still damaged from her disappearance and hesitant to get involved and re-open a wound that never fully closed. Yet, Oz finds himself unable to resist helping when Adrienne’s desperate attempt to flee the confusing and dark influences in her life instinctively finds her on Oz’s doorstep. Unable to turn her away, but equally unable to get too involved, Oz keeps from her the truth of who he was and what they meant to each other before she disappeared. Against his better judgment he finds himself enmeshed in the mystery of what happened to her when she was sixteen. The more he learns, the less he understands, and as the story unfolds and Adrienne’s memory slowly returns, everything they thought they both knew gets called into question.

Review:  St. Charles at Dusk is a layered story of love, deceit and mystery. Ms. Cradit is an artful storyteller, willing to take risks. The two pivotal characters are Adrienne and Oz, two young people who dramatically fall in love, against their parents’ wishes, and then embark on a journey that takes them (and the reader) on a dark ride through mystery and secrets.

The novel is mainly set in New Orleans, and the author does a wonderful job of making you feel that you are there with Oz and Adrienne as they walk the streets of the French Quarter and the Garden District. The differences within New Orleans class culture are illuminating (“Life did not stop for the dead here the way it did only a few miles away in New Orleans. None of the celebrations of the deceased were found in this cold, crisp suburb.”) and help the reader understand the complex issues that face Oz, Adrienne, and a number of other characters.

Oz is five years older than Adrienne and a long-time friend of her family. Adrienne is only 16 when they begin their affair and initially it feels (to this reader) somewhat incestuous. But that is part of the tension, for as a typical 16-year-old, Adrienne is headstrong and convinced that Oz is the love of her short life. Oz, although he quickly falls in love with Adrienne, has that turn of conscience that makes the reader not just like him, but also hope that they can and will be together happily ever after.

But the parents intervene, an tragic accident occurs, and Adrienne leaves and then returns to Oz and then leaves again. Throughout the novel, Oz is forever playing the grown-up to Adrienne’s willful, confused, and heartsick lover. I did come to care for them both, even if I was also impatient with them at times. But, again, that was part of the attraction of the story: you can’t help but have an opinion about their behavior as they struggle to understand each other and overcome the forces that continually get in their way.

The structure of the novel was difficult to navigate at first, with chapters of flashbacks alternating with other chapters of flashbacks. I read the novel as an e-book, and I think it would have been easier for me if I had read it in paperback, easier to flip pages back and forth. Fortunately, Ms. Cradit indicates at the beginning of each chapter, what the year is, the ages of Oz and Adrienne, and also whose voice begins the chapter. The fact that she did lay a “map” (so to speak) for the reader suggests that she also was mindful of the challenges of this particular structure.

Alternating present day with flashbacks is a very difficult storyline to master, and I did feel some frustration at times when I found myself going deeper into the past when I felt like I should be moving forward. But by that point, I was committed to reading the novel. I needed to know how things would turn out for Oz and Adrienne. My reward was that about halfway through, even though most of the novel was still in the past, there was a sense of moving forward, a sense of coming to some resolution with the upheavals in the affair of Oz and Adrienne.

I won’t give away the ending, but I can say that for the longest time, I felt it could go either way. Either they will live happily ever after or they won’t, and either ending would be plausible. That too is a skill that many new authors don’t have readily: to convince the reader that any number of endings could occur and they could all be right.

I recommend this novel to anyone interested in the struggles of young love, suspense and mystery, and magical worlds such as New Orleans.

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