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The Beauty of the End
Debbie Howells

from FictionZeal.com re: The Evening Spider by Emily Arsenault

The Evening Spider: A Novel - Emily Arsenault

What is that sound?  Abby in present day (2014) wakes up at night and hears, “Shhhhh” from her young baby’s bedroom.  Oh, she remembers that she has a tape that plays soothing sounds to help her daughter to sleep.  The “Shhhhh” must be coming from that.  Or is it something else?  When she goes to retrieve her baby, she notices a place at the top of her nose that appears sore and red.  Over the next few days, the sore expands and becomes an ugly bruise.  The house is very old; this was part of the attraction the house held for Chad and Abby.  Abby is a historian who is still on maternity leave.  She contacts the nephew of the original family who has some old records that had been left in the house.  She wants to know more about the people who lived there and know if anybody had died there.

Historically from a journal, we’re given Frances Barnett’s account in 1885 from Northampton Lunatic Hospital.  She’s engaging in a monologue as if to her twin brother, who may be present, but more likely is not.  Frances had a morbid curiosity in a murder case in 1879 for which her husband, Matthew Barnett, was an attorney.  Even as a child, Frances had a bizarre curiosity.  Her brother had received a microscope as a gift.  Frances enjoyed examining such things as wings of dead flies and scabs.  Matthew and Frances had a baby girl, Martha, who Frances proclaimed to love, but yet seemed to doubt her abilities as a mother.  Once Martha was left in her care and tumbled off the bed acquiring a gash by her eyebrow.  After that, Matthew had someone else watch Martha.

It’s important to understand the author’s research as this is based on a real murder case, but more importantly, it’s extremely interesting.  The manner in which people handled lunacy at the time is also prevalent.  Per the Author’s Note, located in the back of this book, “The Northampton Lunatic Hospital was a real institution that opened in 1858.”  Frances Flinch Barnett is a fictional character, who would have been a patient of this hospital while Dr. Pliny Earle was Superintendent.  He “instituted a program of intensive work therapy (considered by some to be slave labor … under Earle’s leadership, the institution’s farm turned a profit).”

The story, told in alternating chapters, is a haunting tale that the reader will not soon forget.  I loved how Abby delved into researching Frances and Matthew’s past with Frances journals, old newspapers, and the historical society’s records.  There was an additional instance of a death in Abby’s past.  I didn’t actually connect this with either her story or Frances and wondered about its inclusion.  I was interested in Abby, but was very curious about the history of Frances.  While the story will stick in my memory, the ending wasn’t as strong as I would have liked.  Rating: 4 out of 5.