The Last House Guest: a lesson in atmospheric writing

What is this about?: A year after her best friend dies, in a suicide (or so everyone thinks) Avery finds herself investigating that night again, wondering what happened to Sadie and trying to clear her name because as she investigates, people begin to wonder if she really was the one that killed Sadie.

What else is this about?: The machinations of people with money — and Avery herself. No one is completely innocent in this.

Blurb

Littleport, Maine is like two separate towns: a vacation paradise for wealthy holidaymakers and a simple harbour community for the residents who serve them. Friendships between locals and visitors are unheard of – but that’s just what happened with Avery Greer and Sadie Loman.

Each summer for a decade the girls are inseparable – until Sadie is found dead. When the police rule the death a suicide, Avery can’t help but feel there are those in the community, including a local detective and Sadie’s brother Parker, who blame her. Someone knows more than they’re saying, and Avery is intent on clearing her name before the facts get twisted against her.

The Last House Guest is a lesson in atmospheric writing and characterisation wrapped around the mystery of Sadie’s death. Where Megan Miranda excels is how she manages to juggle two timelines and maintain a creepy atmosphere.

So what exactly is happening in this book?

The book opens with a party — a year previous when Avery is setting up for the season’s Plus-One party. It’s the party of the season, and  the kind that has everyone descending on an empty house to party hard. Avery is trying to get a hold of Sadie, but she isn’t answering her phone —  then cops show up at the party.

From there, the story moves to the present, where Avery, who is the Lomans’ property manager in Littleport, is moving on with her life as best she can. But when Parker, Sadie’s brother, returns, things begin to change — and Avery discovers Sadie’s phone, the one the police never found the year before.

Everyone in Littleport has their secrets

Pictures on the phone set Avery on an investigation into Sadie, and in effect, their relationship. With the past and present timelines work well to build a sense of dread about where this investigation is leading Avery.

The past timeline also begins to highlight to Avery (in the present) that there were parts of Sadie she didn’t really understand. They were from two very different worlds, brought together by chance. That’s not to say they weren’t friends, but Sadie is the type of person that sweeps people up into her world without warning, and Avery, who has issues of her own to live down, let herself be swept along in Sadie’s wake never realising just what Sadie was up to.

What I am a little bit unsure about still is the lack of interplay between Sadie and Avery and Sadie’s family. Miranda chooses to leave a lot unsaid, but Sadie’s parents and Parker as well, for me at least, were influential to the story and deserved more attention. 

As I mentioned earlier, Miranda is excellent at building an atmosphere, and I finished each chapter with a sense of anticipation and dread as Avery began to uncover more and more about what happened to her friend, and what Sadie had been doing from the moment they began as friends.

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