Starter House by Sonja Condit

Starter HouseStarter House by Sonja Condit

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Okay, so, you know the feeling when you’re reading a really, really intense book and you get incredibly annoyed when the people in your “real” life interrupt you with unimportant issues like dinner and laundry and sleep? And then, when you finally put the book down, you realize that your neck and back are sore because you have been sitting so tensely hunched up, holding your breath in suspense?
Well, that’s the kind of book Starter House by Sonja Condit was for me. I loved this debut novel, which is by turns beautiful, haunting, heart-breaking, and just plain scary.
Without giving too much away, the basic premise of the story is that newly pregnant Lacey and her husband Eric move into what they think is their perfect “starter house.” On the evening that they move in, Lacey lies on the front lawn to this description of the summer evening:
“When the wind brushed her face, the blades rubbed against each other, sharing friendly news. Bees worked the blossoms of the tall purple clover and the short white clover, the small sweet buttercups….Children’s voices rang, far off.”
Sonja Condit captivates the reader, along with Lacey, with the sense of beauty and welcome that initially surround the house. However, in short order, strange things begin to occur, when Lacey meets a mysterious neighborhood boy named Drew. Lacey’s dreams for the future twist into nightmares as she becomes involved with something evil and dangerous in the house.
I loved so many things about this novel. First of all, the writing is gorgeous. This makes for a unique kind of scary ghost story, because the novel manages to be both lyrical and terrifying. Condit’s lovely prose gives the novel a unique and haunting quality.
Also, Condit has created compelling characters, especially her main character of the pregnant Lacey. Lacey is intelligent and courageous, and it is interesting to see how she uses her knowledge as a teacher of troubled children in her dealings with Drew.
On top of this, there is definitely an intriguing mystery element to the story. We know that there is something evil in the house, but we, along with Lacey, don’t know exactly what it is, why it is there, or what it wants. Lacey’s investigation into the tragic history of the house is enjoyable to follow.
And, as mentioned above, especially for the last third of the book, it is almost impossible to stop reading. Starter House is one of the most gripping novels I have read in years, all-consuming in a way that is somewhat comparable to how I felt when I read Gone Girl, although the two books are nothing alike. I marvel at how Condit is able write a story that manages to be both absolutely beautiful, and absolutely terrifying.
There are also a few things in the story that I was less sure about. I had a hard time figuring out Eric, Lacey’s husband. He had a lot of unlikeable qualities, and I really wasn’t sure whether I wanted him and Lacey to stay together or split up after the traumas that they endured. I felt that perhaps his personality could have been portrayed more clearly (either positively or negatively), because as it was, I felt ambivalent about the way things turned out between them.
Secondly, and this is a tiny, miniscule, thing, but there was one line in the novel, about 2/3 of the way through, which was sexually crude and clashed with the tone the rest of the narrative. The sentence was not crucial to the plot, and I literally read it over several times in confusion, because it seemed so out of place in this story. I will be interested to see if other readers react to it like I did.
What bothered me about the sentence was not its inherent crudeness; I have read plenty of gritty, violent, thrillers, but rather that it seemed to disrupt the haunting tone that Condit had so carefully constructed in this novel, the fine line between beauty and tragedy, which was part of what gave it so much impact.
And finally, Sonja Condit currently lives in South Carolina, but grew up in both Canada and the UK. Starter House is set in a fictitious town in South Carolina, but I often found myself feeling like it was set in Britain. To me, this wasn’t a bad thing, because I love stories set in the UK. I simply found it interesting that Starter House had a decidedly British tone, despite its North American location.
All that said, I highly recommend this book. I checked it out from the library, but I plan to buy it, because it is a novel that I want to add to my treasure trove of favorites. And I hope Sonja Condit starts writing her next book right away, because I can’t wait to read more of her stories.

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