The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

I typically aim to finish two books per week on average, sometimes vastly exceeding that goal by hunkering down in the dead of winter—and sometimes massively failing to meet it (by deciding to start the Wheel of Time series, for example, like I did this past year). By the time we were rounding the corner into 2015, I found my book count for the last year barely cresting 50. To be fair, though, this is the year I finally grew some roots in Minnesota and began volunteering for several nonprofits, making friends, and throwing myself into an extremely busy schedule. What I gained in, well, getting a life, I lost in maintaining my reading schedule. My friends still shake their heads, laugh, and commend me for reading approximately 49 more books than they did this year, but the well-trained perfectionist in me knows I could have done more.

That said, while I missed the mark in quantity, I absolutely nailed it in quality. That is to say, in 2014 I read some of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. I even gained a new favorite novel and several close contenders!

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Taking the award for the book I most anticipated in 2014, the only book I actively pre-ordered, and one of the only books I read in 2014 that was actually released in 2014 is Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People. I’ve read most of this author’s novels, which are typically marked by a sodden, dirty-looking little girl on the front cover, including Dismantled, Promise Not to Tell, Island of Lost Girls, The One I Left Behind, and Don’t Breathe a Word (all of which are highly rated by Amazon reviewers and by me, as well). The second I saw the cover for The Winter People, I knew the rumors were true: it was to be unlike anything I’d ever read by McMahon. The usual sad-looking missing girl had been replaced with an oddly unsettling winter farmhouse scene, immediately contrasting this book with her more normal style.

Cracking the winterscape-laden cover, I found that McMahon had set the novel in Vermont. As a native New Englander, I knew the choice to be particularly effective; even as a person who grew up in the state next to Vermont, I often thought of it as mysterious, misunderstood, forbidding, and biting. To this day, I can’t evoke an image of Vermont that doesn’t somehow include a big red barn, snow-covered fields, and barren trees tapped for maple syrup. I quickly realized the book was, much like McMahon’s other novels, about a missing girl and the impact of loss—but this time, it was darker, scarier, more twisted. To be succinct: this was a ghost story.

The book expertly intertwines the story of a town full of legend and mystery after the murder of a woman in 1908 with the present-day protagonist family occupying the home that the murdered woman previously lived in. As the book switches off between the two different time periods, we see that many of the same symptoms of darkness plague the present family as plagued the murdered woman and her family. The book finally erupts at its peak as McMahon toes the line between thriller and horror and asks the reader exactly how far a mother should go to get her missing—or even dead—daughter back. It does an excellent job putting a morbid spin on the bond a mother has with her daughter, reminiscent of The Crocodile Bird by Ruth Rendell, but in modern-day Vermont.

I rated this book: 5/5 stars

Read it if you like: Laura Lippman or Gillian Flynn

Notable quotes:
“Madness is always a wonderful excuse, don’t you think? For doing terrible things to other people.”
“How can you dream if you don’t have a soul?”

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