Darcie Chan is the poster child for struggling indie writers. Her debut novel, The Mill River Recluse, has logged a staggering half million downloads and maintains a four plus star rating on Amazon with close to nine hundred reviews.
So it was with eagerness that I began The Mill River Recluse.
The first part of the novel reads well. The writing doesn’t take many chances but that’s fine—a good story well told is a great thing. The characters are introduced in a revolving manner that keeps the reader turning pages and the narrative moves back and forth from past to present without that jarring clumsiness that frequently trips up many promising novels. Story questions grow around Mary, the damaged protagonist. I was hooked. I even gifted a copy of the novel to a friend of mine at this point.
Then, somewhere around the second act, it all starts to sag. The writing grows deliberate and uninspired —or perhaps it had always been that way but the pacing and story questions up until now compensated. The dialog is painfully direct and frequently mundane. A date at Pizza Hut reads like a teenager’s diary: no irony, no witty repartee, no real danger for a woman trying desperately to watch her weight—just pizza between two adults who act like they’ve never been out to dinner before. Is this what a leading man who wants to snare an attractive woman does on a first date—take her to Pizza Hut?
The biggest problem of the novel by this point is structural: Mary has had her main threat removed and is now continually rescued by a series of benefactors. People build her houses, leave her piles of money, and tend to her ongoing seclusion that borders on mental illness. We want to see Mary overcome her past—or at least fail valiantly. But the Mary we see doesn’t have much to do except withdraw from life and give away wealth to her supposedly beloved town members in a clandestine manner. We don’t see the inner workings of her pathological reclusiveness, just the symptoms, and not enough of them at that. She reads like a secondary character.
In the third act, the story is hijacked by a subplot where one citizen of Mill River tries to attract the attention of the woman who loves Pizza Hut by setting houses on fire. Meanwhile Mary dies. It’s supposed to be heart-wrenching but it’s a relief for a character who has done little but suffer amidst secluded wealth while the rest of Mill River toils. They say that every novel can get away with one coincidence but the one between Mary and the local crazy person smacks so much of author intervention it’s simply not believable. And the local priest’s little foible—meant to be endearing and quirky—comes across as silly and contrived. Are we really expected to believe he had the sleeves of his garments altered so he could steal spoons?
On a technical note I also have to say that the Kindle formatting of this book is atrocious. There are many sections that are indented incorrectly. Throughout the book the reader is treated to paragraph after paragraph of offset, misaligned text. As an indie author I know how trying the process can be but one afternoon with a word editor could fix this. Or hire someone to do it. Half a million readers might appreciate it.
But they seem to love this book anyway. So Darcie Chan must be doing something right.
I’m sure my friend I gifted the copy to must be wondering about me.