After a personal tragedy, Chicago writer Ava Dabrowski quits her job to spend the summer in Woodburn, Tennessee, at the invitation of her old college friend Will Fraser and his two great-aunts, Josephine and Fanny Woodburn. Her charming hosts offer Ava a chance to relax at their idyllic ancestral estate, Woodburn Hall, while working on her first novel.
But Woodburn is anything but quiet: Ancient feuds lurk just beneath its placid surface, and modern-day rivalries emerge as Ava finds herself caught between the competing attentions of Will and his black-sheep cousin Jake. Fascinated by the family’s impressive history—their imposing house filled with treasures, and their mingling with literary lions Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner—Ava stumbles onto rumors about the darker side of the Woodburns’ legacy. Putting aside her planned novel, she turns her creative attentions to the eccentric and tragic clan, a family with more skeletons (and ghosts) in their closets than anyone could possibly imagine. As Ava struggles to write the true story of the Woodburns, she finds herself tangled in the tragic history of a mysterious Southern family whose secrets mirror her own.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
When Ava was small, Clotilde told her stories of ghosts and ruined castles and lonely moonlit roads. Most children would have been afraid of such tales but Ava welcomed the shivers of fear and trembling possibility they sent up her narrow spine. She preferred the gnomes and changelings and lonely, misshapen creatures because they seemed more familiar to her than the beautiful princesses and handsome princes that wove themselves in and out of Clotilde’s rambling tales.
“Tell me a story,” Ava would say, climbing sleepily onto Clotilde’s lap, and Clotilde’s girlish face would go still and then brighten as the words came to her.
They owned few books in those days, not because they were poor but because Clotilde liked to travel light. She preferred rented rooms furnished with the cast-offs of other people’s dismal lives to possessions of her own.
“I’m a traveler!” she always said, and when Ava was older and asked her morosely, “But why?” Clotilde’s face, still girlish, softened for a moment. “Because when you leave one place and move to another, you get to start over. You get to become whoever you want to be.”
To help in this metamorphosis, Clotilde sometimes changed her name. Over the years she was Dharma and Abrielle and even (ironically) Magdalena. But it was the name Clotilde that she most often used.
“Clotilde was the Queen of Sardinia!” she exclaimed, grinning sheepishly at whatever man was currently in her life. “Besides, the name means ‘famous in battle.’?”
Clotilde saw no more harm in changing her name than she did in moving every six months. “What’s in a name?” she liked to say.
Ava, who had been born Summer Rayne Dabrowski, inevitably responded, “Everything.”
Around the time she was in third grade, not long after they moved to Cincinnati and just before they moved to Cleveland, Ava had jettisoned Summer Rayne in favor of Margaret, after the name penciled into her well-worn copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Margaret Anne Govan. And later, not long before she started high school, she had abandoned Margaret in favor of Ava, still foolishly believing, like Clotilde, that she could leave her girlhood behind just by changing her name.
“Tell me a story,” she would say when she was still small enough to believe in Clotilde’s tales. “Tell me a story about my father.” And she would snuggle down in her narrow bed and wait for Clotilde to begin, wait for the words to form behind the smooth mask of Clotilde’s girlish face, and come tumbling out of her sly rosebud mouth.
“Once upon a time there was a handsome prince of the Underworld, and he fell in love with a beautiful princess. But she was betrothed to someone else, and when her father found out that she had been tarrying with the prince of the Underworld, he had the two of them locked up in a tower behind a pair of huge paneled doors.
“?‘You cannot live apart,’ cried the angry king. ‘Let’s see how you shall live together, day after day, night after night, with only each other for company!’
“And although the two were given water, slid through a panel in the massive doors, they were denied food.
“?‘Live on your love for each other!’ roared the cruel king.
“?‘Give us bread!’ they wailed, shut up in their tower tomb. ‘We are hungry!’
“Their pitiful cries went on for days and weeks, becoming ever weaker and more pitiful as the days went on. Finally they stopped. When the villagers crept close there were no sounds but the growls and slurps of voracious eating, the sharp clatters of teeth against bone, the sound of flesh being torn and devoured.”
It was one of Ava’s favorite stories. Years later she would remember it and, closing her eyes, would see the youthful images of her parents entombed behind paneled doors, waiting like tragic ghosts for her to come and free them.
When Will Fraser called and suggested that she spend the summer in Woodburn, Tennessee, Ava thought the idea preposterous. What little she knew about the South had come from bad cinema and the stories of Flannery O’Connor, and it had always amazed her that someone as cultured as Will could have come from the land of monster truck rallies and cornbread festivals.
It wasn’t the first time he’d invited her. They had gone to college together at Bard, and had kept in touch over the past seven or eight years through emails, phone calls, and the occasional visit. Communication between them was sporadic and due mostly to his efforts. Ava considered them to be casual acquaintances. He’d come to Chicago several times on business and had looked her up. Each time he’d asked her to spend some time in Tennessee, she’d laughed. She had made the mistake of telling him that she wanted to be a novelist—he had a manner that invited confidences—and he insisted that his sleepy little hometown would be the perfect place for her to write her first novel. He didn’t seem to understand that, unlike him, she had to work for a living. She had school loans to pay and a job in a prestigious Chicago ad agency that it had taken her some time and effort to land.
But this time when he called, things were different. Her life was undergoing a series of cataclysmic upheavals. In less than six months her estranged mother had died of a brain aneurysm, her career had stalled, her affair with her boss, Jacob, had wound down to its inevitable conclusion, and most disturbing of all, she had received a condolence letter out of the blue from a man purporting to be her father. Coming one on top of the other, these events had left her shaken, confused, and understandably depressed.
Sunk in a dense fog, she hadn’t had the strength to pretend that things were fine when Will called.
“Are you all right?” he asked her.
“I’ve been better,” she said truthfully.
On his last trip to Chicago a few months before, she hadn’t seen him. He had called and left a message saying he was in town, but she had planned a rendezvous with Jacob that night and so pretended she hadn’t gotten the message in time, calling Will later to apologize. She felt guilty for weeks about standing him up, and yet the truth was, they had only known each other for a short time in college. He was two years ahead of her in school, and was friends with her first love, Michael. In those days Will was a tall, dark-haired boy, very well mannered but shy, with a slight Southern accent.
“Another trust-fund baby,” Michael had called him dismissively and it was true. There were plenty of those at Bard, although Will didn’t seem like old money. He shopped at thrift stores like the rest of them and drove an old battered Volvo station wagon. The truth was, Ava hadn’t really paid much attention to him; she had been so caught up in her tumultuous love affair with Michael, and Will had simply been a quiet backdrop to all of that. A silent witness.
Once she and Michael had quarreled in a bar several miles from campus and Michael, in a fury, abruptly left, taking the car and leaving her stranded at two o’clock in the morning in an unfamiliar part of town. Will, who had been watching from the bar (he had grown accustomed to their violent arguments and no longer intervened), insisted on driving her home. She was dismayed to find herself crying, and raged against Michael on the ride home while Will listened silently. He insisted on seeing her up the rickety stairs of her Victorian apartment building to her front door.
“Would you like me to wait?” he asked.
“No. Thank you.” She knew Michael would return later and there’d be another row, and she didn’t want Will to see it. She was embarrassed suddenly that he’d already seen so much of their dysfunctional relationship.
“All right. Good night.” He touched her briefly on the arm and a faint tinge of color appeared along his brow. Ava realized then that he had a crush on her.
“Good night,” she said.
She never told Michael how she’d gotten home and he never asked, but a few weeks later he mentioned rather casually that Will Fraser was engaged to a girl he’d gone to boarding school with. After that, there was a wariness between Will and Ava whenever they met, something that Ava noted at first with mild regret and later didn’t notice at all. By the time Will and Michael graduated a year later, the two had drifted apart and Ava rarely saw him.
She saw Will briefly at graduation. He was standing on the lawn among a small knot of friends and family. He’d grown very thin and pale, and when she remarked on this to Michael he smiled unpleasantly and said it had something to do with the fiancée. A broken engagement or something like that.
“Women,” Michael said, shaking his head. “God knows why we put up with you.”
“You’ve got spinach in your teeth,” Ava lied, and while he hurried off to check, she strolled over to congratulate Will.
He smiled when he saw her and introduced her to his family. His parents had died in a car accident when he was a child, and he’d been raised by two great-aunts, Fanny and Josephine. They smiled politely at Ava. They were both elegantly dressed, with pale skin and clear gray eyes. Very attractive, both of them, although they must have been in their sixties. The smaller one, Fanny, smiled shyly and took Ava’s arm.
“So you’re Ava,” she said. She wore a silk dress belted tightly around her narrow waist and a short little jacket.
Josephine, the taller one, let her eyes flicker coolly over Ava. “Goodness, Fanny, don’t clutch her so.” She was dressed in a gray suit that matched her eyes, and she seemed rather reserved, like Will, only in him this reserve came across as shyness, while in her it seemed cold and distant. “You’ll have to excuse my sister,” she said to Ava. Sistuh. “As you can see, she’s never met a stranger.”
It was an odd thing to say, and yet spoken in that beautiful accent it sounded like music.
“What lovely hair you have,” Fanny said.
Ava smiled. “Thank you.” It was her best feature and she was rather proud of it. She had left it down today, and it fell in red-gold waves around her shoulders.
“Aren’t you chilly?” Josephine asked, noting her sleeveless dress.
Ava laughed. “After Chicago, this is nothing,” she said.
“So you’re from Chicago?”
“Ah,” Josephine said in a tone that could have indicated surprise or disapproval or resignation.
A faint bloom of color appeared in Will’s face. He raised his head and looked around the crowded lawn. “I wonder what’s happened to Uncle Maitland,” he said.
Somewhere south of Owensboro the landscape changed, became more rolling and green. Great clouds of yellow pollen hung in the air. The light in Chicago had a sharp, clear quality but here it came in at odd angles, filtered by tall trees and masses of greenery lining the roadway.
They had thrown her a going-away party at work, a Deliverance theme party complete with dueling banjos and white-trash martinis. Colleen, drunk, had stood up and given a nice little speech, ending with the warning, “And whatever you do, don’t get off the expressway! For Christ’s sake, stay on the expressway.” Everyone at work thought of the South as a place of hillbillies and moonshine, and Ava had to admit (although only to herself) that she felt the same way. Perhaps this was why she had forced herself to get off the expressway just north of Louisville, and, buying a map, proceeded to drive bravely along curving picturesque county roads past small-frame farmhouses and tall-steepled churches and mobile homes with elaborately attached decks and discarded appliances rusting in the yards.