Pale Moon Rising is a contemporary romance with standard Gothic elements. Beautiful young woman from working-class roots, mysterious old house with irascible housekeeper, ex-lover, lover’s autocratic mother, lover’s sly sister… and mysterious, menacing events. It’s nothing particularly exciting, and under the sometimes-clunky writing, it never rises above the humdrum.
Olivia Jones is going back home to Savannah in order to offer her ideas for the interior decorating of Mallenegua, a historic mansion on an offshore island. The house has been purchased by a real-estate development group that wants to revive it as an exclusive retreat. Olivia, who is known professionally by her first name only, desperately wants the job. She’s stunned when one of the development partners turns out to be her ex-husband, Joe Connally.
Olivia loved Joe, her best friend’s older brother, and one night they got carried away. Olivia ended up a pregnant 18-year-old, and Joe married her, even though her mother was the family housekeeper. His own mother was horrified, and when the baby was stillborn at six months, immediately conspired to break them up. The maneuver she used – telling Olivia lies about Joe while Olivia was still in the hospital – is as creaky as the “housekeeper’s daughter” setup, and particularly irritating because the reader knows exactly what’s going to happen. Sure enough, Olivia believes every word, doesn’t bother to confront Joe, and leaves town as fast as she can with nine hundred dollars in her pocket.
Fourteen years later, she’s a nationally-known phenom (and I’d love to know how a penniless kid made that happen so fast, but it’s never explained) and her design for Mallenegua is selected, over Mother Connally’s objections. Then mysterious things start happening and Olivia appears to be in danger. Meanwhile, Joe and Olivia find the spark isn’t dead, after all.
If the plot wasn’t much to grab the attention, at least the lead characters were somewhat entertaining. Olivia has some spine, thankfully, and though her professional duties seem to consist of little more than wandering around the house imagining fabric placement, the romance with Joe feels appropriately wary. Of course, “wary” also translates into “not going to sit down and discuss the past”, which may offset the enjoyment somewhat.
Joe isn’t a bad hero. The forced suspense does what it’s supposed to – gives him the page space to save Olivia and prove he still cares about her – but for all that, he’s entertaining, particularly when he gets fed up with his mother. His interactions with her are the best scenes in the book, which might tell you something.
The sister, Blair, who is Olivia’s former best friend, is as nasty as they come for most of the book, and when she finally reveals her reason for helping Mama run Olivia out of town fourteen years ago, it doesn’t hold up. Frankly, Olivia forgives Blair far too easily. I’d have told her to take a hike. Joe’s brother, Luke, hangs around calling his brother “bro” like something out of a 1970s sitcom. I couldn’t figure out what he was doing in the story at all. And Olivia’s final resistance of Joe’s courtship is so ridiculous that the reader may likely hurl the book against the wall.
Pale Moon Rising might fit the bill if you haven’t read a contemporary suspense in a while, but there’s nothing new here to make it memorable, and a lot to aggravate the reader. Approach with caution.