Bottom Line: Disappointing third novel and definitely her weakest to date
“1937. In a windswept village on the Dorset coast, fourteen-year-old Mitzy Hatcher has endured a wild and lonely upbringing. But the arrival of renowned artist Charles Aubrey, along with his exotic mistress and their two daughters, changes everything. Over the course of three summers, Mitzy develops a deep and abiding bond with the Aubrey household, gradually becoming Charles’s muse. Slowly, she begins to perceive a future she had never thought possible – and a powerful love is kindled in her. A love that will grow as she does: from innocence to obsession; from childish infatuation to something far more dangerous.Years later, a young man in an art gallery happens upon a hastily drawn portrait and is intrigued by its curious intensity. The questions he asks lead him to the seaside village – and to the truth about those fevered summers of long ago.”
Thoughts: Katherine Webb has made a name for herself with her charming, Gothic novels that have a very rustic, nostalgic feel to them. In A Half Forgotten Song, she tries to replicate this and ultimately ends up failing. The otherworldly, Gothic element is there but too easily and too quickly explained, and therefore loses any impact almost from the very beginning. That pastoral and sentimental component is also forced, as it is not so much a hint but an actual setting. Half of the novel is told in flashbacks by a very old and wistful woman, and while they reveal the truth about Charles Aubrey, they also force-feed a reader with her yearning for what was and what could have been. The delicacy which was used to such great effect in both of her previous novels is completely missing this time.
Similarly, A Half Forgotten Song is supposed to be romantic but ends up falling into the creepy spectrum. Mitzy is obviously highly disturbed by her past, and as her story unfolds, one wonders if she wasn’t a bit addled before she ever met Charles. Her childhood was by no means an easy one, and that had to have impacted her ability to accept the gift of kindness, let alone compliments. It is easy to see why she is so quickly swept off her feet by Charles and his family, but her infatuation with him eventually borders on obsession and quickly becomes disturbing. There are certain plot points brought up as surprise twists which do nothing but confirm this sentiment.
Meanwhile, Zach’s story is nothing but a convenient plot device. His failed marriage is simply a method which is supposed to generate sympathy within in a reader, and his infatuation with Charles Aubrey the artist allows him to be the means by which Mitzy eventually shares her story. His subplot with Mitzy’s beautiful but mysterious neighbor is nonessential to the overall story and proves to be more of a filler or a distraction than anything that moves forward the narrative. There are other, smaller side plots that also go nowhere and serve no real purpose to the main plot. To this end, Ms. Webb’s manipulation of the reader and prolonged set-up of the main story is too overt to sit well with most readers. There really is no subtlety to the entire story, in a genre that thrives on subtle maneuverings.
Much of Mitzy’s story, as well as Zach’s, hinges on this idea that Charles Aubrey had an animal magnetism about him that not only made women swoon but also made men sit up and appreciate him. Unfortunately, this allure is not clearly explained or shown. Mitzy’s attraction to him could quite easily be explained by the lack of affection and love in her childhood and has nothing to do with the man himself. Similarly, Zach’s own preoccupation with the artist has nothing to do with his skill as an artist but rather his grandmother’s hints at their possible affair. The idea of being an illegitimate offspring of the artist is what initially draws his eye to Charles. The scenes in which Charles is prominent do nothing to help flesh out this supposedly larger-than-life character either, which means a reader is forced to take the word of a possibly senile old woman, a blindly adoring teenage girl, and a self-interested potential grandson to portray this crucial plot element. Make no mistake, they fail to present his charm in a convincing manner, leading a reader to wonder why all the fuss exists.
Ms. Webb’s debut novel was good, but it was with her second novel where she really came into her own and set a high bar for future stories. Unfortunately, A Half Forgotten Song just does not live up to those expectations. The story is decent, and the characters are somewhat intriguing. It is unfortunately missing that special something which was so impressive with her previous novels. Knowing that there were high expectations when opening the book does not mean that one can gloss over its deficiencies either. The mystical element wasn’t quite as spooky as it was meant to be, and the ending not only felt rushed but rather too convenient. At the end of the day, A Half Forgotten Song tries too hard to achieve a certain Gothic charm. The resulting story is a disappointment after readers have seen what Ms. Webb is capable of producing.