The Vanishing (2014) is author Wendy Webb’s third modern Gothic novel with a supernatural tinge. Like The Tale of Halcyon Crane (2010) and The Fate of Mercy Alban (2013), The Vanishing is about a young woman exploring a mysterious event from the past.
Warning: This review contains spoilers
Synopsis: The book begins by depicting a séance gone wrong in 1875. Then the story flashes forward to present day Chicago. Julia Bishop is without friends or prospects after her husband, Jeremy, commits suicide after his Ponzi scheme collapses. One day Adrian Sinclair shows up on Julia’s doorstep with a job offer. Adrian offers Julia a job as companion to his mother. Julia hesitates over the offer until Adrian mentions that his mother is gothic novelist Amaris Sinclair. The catch is Amaris supposedly died 10 years ago. So Julia travels to Havenwood, the Sinclair Estate located near Lake Superior in Minnesota. Julia becomes deeply unsettled by her uncanny resemblance to a portrait of the medium who visited Havenwood in 1857 and disappeared. Strange events follow Julia as she races to untangle the past before it it too late.
Review: As with Ms. Webb’s previous books, The Vanishing moves at a relatively fast pace. The narrative is enjoyable but not overly deep. However, I felt that the story could have been infinitely better. Ms. Webb hinted at several facts and then never followed thorough. This is incredibly frustrating as I hate having more questions than answers at the end of a novel. I have three major problems with The Vanishing.
First, while I am a fan of split time narrative, there are not enough scenes depicting the events in 1857. Ms. Webb continually made veiled references to this fated séance and never followed through. How long had Andrew McCullough and the medium Seraphina been in a relationship? Did Andrew ever try to leave the estate? If so, then why? Did he ever try to find Seraphina? All of these questions could have answered if the novel was about 200 pages longer. Without this back story, the modern parallels lack the needed emotional and dramatic depth.
Second, is Drew a ddescendantor the original Andrew? Throughout the story Ms. Webb makes hints that Andrew is actually immortal. Then she draws attention to the fact that Drew never leaves the estate and looks exactly like Andrew’s portrait. So are they the same person or descendants? Frankly I was quite annoyed that this was never fully explained. I thought Drew had the potential to be a compelling character. Yet he was shortchanged in the development department. Another parallel Ms.Webb draws is that Julia is nearly identical to the medium Seraphina. Low and behold the old Andrew fell head over heels in love with Seraphina. So it is no surprise that Drew and Julia have an instant attachment. Also turns out that Julia is a descendant of this mysterious Seraphina. So if Drew is the supposedly immortal Andrew, he apparently just bided his time to wait for Seraphina’s lookalike descendant to arrive. How romantic. Instead of chasing the love of his life, he just waited for the newer model to arrive. I found this very frustrating. I just want some answers! Is he or is he not immortal?
Third, there was this very weird back story about Julia being in an insane asylum. Apparently Amaris Sinclair decided to have a séance in order to finally banish the evil entity that Seraphina had summoned back in 1857. Turns out that Julia was the medium Amaris hired. When she first arrived, she and Drew fell in love and everything seemed to be going dandy. Then the séance occurred and the evil turned out to be more powerful than Julia thought. It attached Adrian’s daughter and nearly killed Julia. This resulted in Adrian’s wife divorcing him and Julia having a complete mental breakdown. Julia ends up in the asylum with no memory of her life. She ends up befriending a fellow patient named Jeremy. They get married and leave the asylum. Flash forward ten years and Jeremy is dead and Adrian comes knocking. Turns out the Sinclair family has been tracking Julia’s movements all this time and paid her health bills. They did this because Julia had become “just like family” after staying for one week. In the present, Julia is at the Sinclair residence and is experiencing severe déjà vu because everything feels familiar and everyone treats her like a family member. Julia does not know that Adrian and Amaris brought her back home in an effort to restore her mind. Anyways, Julia keeps hearing voices and seeing ghosts. Once she finds out that she is a medium, she decides to take on the resident demon, which conveniently only haunts two rooms. After spending a decade without knowing herself or practicing magic, Julia suddenly becomes an expert medium and banishes the demon forever. She then regains her memories, declares her love for Drew, and decides to stay. Oh, and Adrian’s daughter inexplicably returns and to declare her love for her father.
The ending was bizarre and incredibly rushed. All throughout the novel there is this intense build up and hints of suspense. Then the climax arrives and it feels incredibly underwritten. Julia defeats this “powerful” evil in about three pages. And then everything is tied up in a neat little bow. The Vanishing could have been a decent novel if Ms. Webb had drawn out the mystery a little more and elaborated on the events in 1857. And I really wanted to know more of Drew’s backstory. I really dislike it when one of the romantic leads is little more than a card board cutout. Also, I am disappointed because Ms.Webb had a compelling narrative but poor execution.
The Vanishing, Hyperion, January 21, 2014, ISBN 978-1401341947