In the summer of 1935, six-year-old Emily Evans vanishes from her family’s vacation home on a remote Minnesota lake. Her disappearance destroys her mother, who spends the rest of her life at the lake house, hoping in vain that her favourite daughter will walk out of the woods. Emily’s two older sisters stay, too, each keeping her own private, decades-long vigil for the lost child.
Sixty years later Lucy, the quiet and watchful middle sister, lives in the lake house alone. Before she dies, she writes the story of that devastating summer in a notebook that she leaves, along with the house, to the only person to whom it might matter: her grandniece, Justine.
For Justine, the lake house offers a chance to escape her manipulative boyfriend and give her daughters the stable home she never had. But it’s not the sanctuary she hoped for. The long Minnesota winter has begun. The house is cold and dilapidated, the frozen lake is silent and forbidding, and her only neighbour is a strange old man who seems to know more than he’s telling about the summer of 1935.
Soon Justine’s troubled oldest daughter becomes obsessed with Emily’s disappearance, her mother arrives with designs on her inheritance, and the man she left behind launches a dangerous plan to get her back. In a house steeped in the sorrows of the women who came before her, Justine must overcome their tragic legacy if she hopes to save herself and her children.
As soon as I heard about The Lost Girls, I jumped at the chance to request it from NetGalley. Dual timeline? Historical mystery? Woman discovering herself whilst finding out long-buried family secrets? It all sounded like Unread Books catnip!
In the summer of 1935, six-year-old Emily Evans vanishes from her family’s remote lake house. Her distraught mother refuses to leave, staying at the family’s summer home in the hope that, one day, her lost daughter will return. Emily’s two older sisters, eleven-year-old Lucy and thirteen-year-old Lilith, also stay behind. Years later, Lilith’s granddaughter Justine receives word that her great-aunt Lucy has died – and left her the Lake House and all of its contents.
Stuck in a stifling relationship and with two small daughters to provide for, Justine jumps at the chance for a fresh start. But the Lake House is far from welcoming. The long Minnesota winter is just beginning and the house is more dilapidated than Justine remembers. Her only neighbours – a pair of quiet and reclusive elderly men – are cautiously friendly, but seem to know more about Justine’s family than they are letting on. With the arrival of her erratic and unreliable mother and controlling ex-boyfriend, Justine’s new start is soon in danger of repeating old history. And then her troubled eldest daughter starts asking questions about a long ago summer in 1935…
As you can hopefully tell from that brief synopsis, The Lost Girls is a page-turning and compelling mystery set over dual timelines. Alternating between Justine herself in the present day, an elderly Lucy writing down her recollections of that long ago summer, the mystery of what happened to Emily gradually unravels alongside Justine’s present day woes and conflicts to create a complete picture of a family haunted by long-buried secrets and betrayals.
Although compelling, the plot is relatively sedate for the first half of the book. There’s quite a lot of setup to establish the characters and the setting, which really helps to build the tension for what ended up being a pacy and explosive second act! I really loved the sense of place that Heather Young manages to convey. She captures both the nostalgia of Lucy’s childhood summers by the lake – all sunlit evenings and rising emotions stifled by the heat – and the cold isolation of the modern day Lake House, frozen in time just as much as it is frozen within the wintery Minnesota landscape.
The characters were, for me, a little harder to like. Although I could sympathise with Justine, I sometimes struggled to empathise with her inability to cut her ties and make a new life for herself and her girls. Although I don’t want to give any spoilers, there are a couple of characters in her life that I would have given the heave-ho much sooner – and before events turned dramatic!
Lucy was, for me, the more compelling voice in the narrative. Although often irrational and petulant, she comes across as a typical eleven-year-old girl, caught somewhere between childhood and her teenage years – and aware that her older sister Lilith is growing up and leaving her behind. The revelations about Lucy’s life and family are also utterly devastating – and really put into perspective some of the events that have come beforehand in the book, as well as some of the ripples that feed through to the present day narrative.
Although primarily a mystery, The Lost Girls does also deal with family dynamics and family secrets. Although it tackles the subjects with sensitivity, trigger warnings should be noted for sexual abuse, child abuse, gaslighting, and coercive control.
Overall, The Lost Girls is a captivating story of loss, guilt, hope, redemption, and escape. Its dual narratives are handled with great skill to make for an enthralling mystery of one family’s secrets and lies over the space of 64 years. Haunting and intriguing, The Lost Girls is sure to appeal to fans of Rachel Hore and Kate Morton, as well as to anyone seeking a compulsive and compelling read.
The Lost Girls by Heather Young is published by Verve Books and is available now as an ebook and to pre-order in paperback from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher and NetGalley UK for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 09 July 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.
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