Garth Stein

A Sudden Light

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A Sudden Light Summary

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Set in Seattle’s Puget Sound region, American author Garth Stein’s novel A Sudden Light (2014) tells the story of the Riddell family as seen through the lens of 14-year-old Trevor Riddell, who arrives at the ancestral estate to find a legacy of secrets and the ghosts of a past that continue to haunt the land. It gradually becomes Trevor’s job to lead his family on the rocky path to redemption. A Sudden Light was a New York Times bestseller.

The novel opens in 2013, as Trevor reflects on the chain of events that began on his fourteenth birthday in 1990. He reveals details about the Riddell family’s history: His great-great-grandfather, Elijah, had made a massive fortune in the timber business, and he used some of that wealth to chop down a portion of the native woodland to build a sprawling log home on the banks of the Puget Sound. The home, according to his family, is cursed. His mother says that “when one destroys something of beauty and nature…one will be punished. Cursed.” But to Trevor, this all seems long ago and of an entirely different world. He lives with his father and mother in Connecticut, and whatever or whoever cursed the Riddells nearly a century ago is of little relevance to him.

Or so he initially thinks. When his parents suddenly declare bankruptcy, they lose their home not long after, and on the heels of this, his mother and father separate. His mother goes to England, where her family lives. Trevor goes back to Riddell House in Seattle with his father, Jones.

Jones’s sister, Serena, and elderly father, Samuel, remain in Riddell House, even though the place is in shambles. When Elijah’s son Benjamin died in an accident, Elijah stopped the development of the property. Elijah saw the accident as the product of a curse on the land brought on by his butchering of the local timber supply, so he put a moratorium on any further development of Riddell land.

That moratorium, however, is over. Jones and Serena both need money, and they know they can raze the house and sell the land for a small fortune. With his portion of the proceeds, Jones can get back on firmer financial footing and win back the affection of his wife. Nevertheless, first Samuel must agree to his children’s plans and sign off on any real estate deal.

Meanwhile, Riddell House seems to have a mind of its own. Trevor hears the house say his name. Soon, the ghost of Benjamin Riddell visits Trevor—yet Ben isn’t the only wraith dragging around the halls of the crumbling old mansion. Dementia-plagued Samuel swears he hears his deceased wife in the dead of night, dancing across the wood floors.

With Ben’s guidance, Trevor unearths long-forgotten letters written by a man named Harry Lindsey, as well as Elijah’s diaries. From the diaries, Trevor learns that Ben and Elijah often disagreed. While his father was a timber tycoon, Ben was a conservationist, more interested in preserving the land than destroying it. From the letters, Trevor discovers that Ben was gay and involved with Harry, putting Ben at further odds with Elijah, though Ben’s wife seemingly understood and expressed support for his sexual orientation.

Harry died in an accident, and Ben died the following day. Then, Elijah made his proclamation that the 200 acres of land he owned on the Puget Sound would never see any further development.

Having this new information, Trevor now views Jones and Serena’s plan as disrespectful of the family legacy. Serena seems to take on almost evil deceitfulness as she attempts to wrest control of the land from Samuel. Yet Trevor suspects there is something more going on, something even more unsettling, in the relationship between Serena and her father. He comes to see that Samuel doesn’t have dementia after all, but Serena tries to convince everyone he is truly sick. This keeps him bound to her in unhealthy ways; she plans to carry on this incestuous affair by taking her portion of the sale of the land and running off with Samuel.

Despite Trevor’s attempts to tell his father the truth about Serena, Samuel, and the family’s history, Jones does not believe him.

Trevor finds Serena making the dancing noises that trick Samuel into thinking he hears his dead wife. He catches her in the act, and Trevor and Jones confront her. Jones informs her that he wants to be rid of it all and just let the city have the house so he and Trevor can go back to Connecticut. Later that night, Serena sets the house on fire. Trevor and Samuel escape, but Serena and Jones die.

Two decades pass, and Trevor goes back to the Riddell property, now a public park. His mother and the rest of his family come with him. During the visit, Jones’s ghost comes to Trevor’s mother. He tells her that Trevor can explain the secrets of the Riddells better than anyone. Trevor shares all he knows with her.