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Review: Sanctuary

Review: Sanctuary

Title: Sanctuary
Author: Jennifer McKissack
Published: 2015
Length: 306 pages

My star rating: ★ ★ ★

After the death of her Aunt Laura, Cecelia Cross reluctantly returns to the isolated Maine island where she was born. She finds everything and everyone she knew at Sanctuary much changed, and despite her relief at seeing her beloved sea once more, she knows something is very wrong. When she begins seeing apparitions and hearing voices, Cecelia must confront her family history and that of Sanctuary itself and uncover the truth before it costs her–or someone she loves–their lives.

I wish I could give Sanctuary four stars. The writing is beautiful and mature, particularly for a YA novel, and the chilly coastal-New-England atmosphere McKissack creates is delightful, perfect for a Gothic tale like this one. Cecelia is also a memorable and sympathetic heroine with whose plights I really sympathized.

Alas, for all its high points, Sanctuary is little more than a paint-by-numbers Gothic story. That is not to say it’s bad–it’s not at all. It’s quite entertaining, sometimes edge-of-your-seat reading, though something about the pacing and writing style prevents it from being truly riveting. There are a variety of interwoven mysteries that do get somewhat confusing, and they check off all the Gothic fiction boxes: big, spooky, probably-haunted mansion (that happens to be on a deserted island)? Check. Crazy lady in the attic? Check. Ghosts? Possible murders? Dark family secrets? Check, check, check.

Yet overall, the plot was underwhelming. It was trying to be big and significant, but it just wasn’t. The pace also vacillated wildly from too slow to much too fast, and even though I was invested in the story, that kept throwing me. (For instance, in the course of two  very short chapters, Cecelia goes from being at Sanctuary to being in Nova Scotia. I had to read them twice, all the while thinking, “Wait, what just happened?”) Most of the Gothic elements worked well enough together, but once the larger plot was revealed, they seemed overly dramatic–things used to up the ante of a sort of an overall story that was lacking. There were also so many of them, so much backstory, that the novel really should have been longer. Three hundred pages–small type or not–was not enough to encompass everything.

As I said, I did like Cecelia, and her love interest Eli was pretty cute at times. They had a somewhat charming love story, even if it felt rushed (but it isn’t instalove!). I was, however, much more interested in Ben, Cecelia’s supposedly mentally handicapped cousin and honestly I kind of shipped him with Cecelia. The rest of the Sanctuary characters were pretty dull, namely Cecelia’s over-the-top evil uncle, Frank. He had literally zero redeeming qualities; he was just a caricature of a paranoid, sexist asshat. Even factoring in the “bad influence” that Sanctuary and its ghosts had on him couldn’t make him one jot more sympathetic. I wish characters like Cecelia’s old governess, Miss Owens, and her mother had been more developed and given more space in the book. They at least had personalities.

Of all her struggles, Cecelia’s fears about “inheriting” her mother’s supposed insanity struck a particular chord with me. My own mother has grown up to be a lot like my grandmother in her habits and personality, and since my mother is also alcoholic and very manipulative and cruel at times, I worry–quite a lot–that someday I’ll be like that.

Sanctuary was a good romp on the whole. I felt for the heroine, and the whole thing made me miss Maine a lot. (I can’t believe Cecelia went swimming–almost naked–as late as mid-September, though. You’re gonna get hypothermia or pneumonia or something, girl!)

As is usually the case, however, the actual process of uncovering the mysteries was far more exciting and compelling than the solutions to them were. The climax was extremely rushed–the last hundred pages were rushed in general, in fact–and felt just like every other paranormal/Gothic YA novel I’ve ever read. It all felt too easy, too neat, too fast. There was no resolution, either, just an abrupt final page. So even if the rest of it had gotten four stars from me, the ending probably would have bumped it down to three.

Still, it was a solid and engaging little read, and that’s really all I ask of any book!

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