Tripping Arcadia by Kit Mayquist
The cover of 2022’s Tripping Arcadia reads, “A Gothic Novel,” and the book certainly meets that definition. Lena, our brooding first-person narrator, warns us on the first few pages that she’s “confessing,” and her story drips with confusion, secrets, hidden pain, sexual longing, shadows, and death.
This book is filled with things I loved; plants, herbal poisons, interrupted conversations that seethe with secrets, an old, creepy mansion; secret passages, old books, a beautiful young man hellbent on self-destruction, dangerous parties, crushes that reveal themselves in yearning moments of physical descriptions of skin, lips and body heat. Mayquist nails the gothic tone nearly perfectly. The book doesn’t scream “gothic,” it speaks the word in a hoarse whisper from behind a bottle of blood-red wine.
The plot doesn’t satisfy as much as the prose and the sensibility. The ultimate reveal seems simultaneously convoluted and a bit obvious, and there are small logic flaws along the way that had a cumulative effect of dragging down the story for me. In a couple of cases, apparent logic flaws were probably not that at all, just the result of the reader finding out important information much later in the book, after drawing the wrong conclusion. Misdirection can be fun. This wasn’t misdirection.
Lena has returned to her blue-collar Massachusetts home after a glorious stay with her botanist/scientist aunt in Italy. Lena, who dropped out of medical school, rediscovered her love of healing while helping her aunt with her research. Financial issues drove her home. Her father was downsized from the company where he’d worked forever, and an injury that is never truly explained has restricted him to the recliner, watching TV and taking pain pills. Lena is expected to help support the family. She gets a job as assistant to a doctor who caretakes the rebellious heir of the Verdeau family, a rich dynasty, the owners of the company that took away her father’s job. Heir Jonathan is apparently sick, more than just an alcoholic, which is what Lena assumes he is at first. Dr. Prosenko, who she will assist, is arrogant and doesn’t explain anything, but the pay is great and there are some perks, like getting to spend time close to Jonathan’s beautiful sister Audrey.
In her spare time—at first she has a lot—Lena continues to study a group of plants her Aunt Clare sent. She is fascinated by a plant that is supposed to create amazing visions when ingested. She and Aunt Clare had no luck with this plant, which Lena calls Saint’s Fog, but her aunt sent her a seedling and Lena continues to experiment. The day-job abruptly escalates when Lena is told she will be needed at the family Berkshire estate, Arrow’s Edge. It’s not to care for Jonathan, but to attend one of the nasty patriarch’s elaborate parties. Lena will dispense condoms and Narcan on demand, and help Dr. Prosenko treat the worst medical emergencies, with the goal of keeping any problems out of the media. The party is a quasi-orgy with date-rape drugs and worse flowing like the liquor in the elaborate champagne fountain. Blue-collar couples have been invited, mostly to be mocked. In an epiphany, Lena decides that, directly or not, the Verdeaus are responsible for her father’s situation, and plans a fitting revenge, brewing a drug from the Saint’s Fog plant. Her scheme is to dose Martin, the patriarch, at the next big party, but things go awry and she is caught. Far from being arrested, disgraced and fired, Lena is drawn more deeply into the silken web of corrupt power in which the family resides.
Lena’s intuitive leap is one of the weak plot points, and I think the book could have been less coy about the parties. At the first one, where she has this revelation, time is spent gazing longingly at Audrey, and stumbling across Jonathan and his obligatory trio of entitled buddies. Sexual exploitation is hinted at, and we certainly know that Lena’s job is to hand out condoms. We see the rich people laughing mockingly at a neighbor of Lena’s, who, dressed up in finery, has fallen and is in distress. The scene did not convince me that it was enough to turn Lena against the Verdeaus.
Other plot problems range from serious to minor. Prosenko’s actions drive most of the mystery part of this story and he is not a well-developed character. In contrast, a nit that added cumulatively to my problem with the book comes from Audrey consistently calling Lena a doctor. “Your Jonathan’s doctor, too,” she says on more than one occasion. Because Lena is clearly not a doctor, this started to read as if the wealthy, corporate Verdeau family hadn’t done a basic background check on the woman they were hiring to protect the family heir. Very close to the end, it looks like they did a thorough background check indeed, but Audrey’s refrain made it difficult to suspend disbelief.
The characters who are well done are the two damaged Verdeau siblings, Jonathan and Audrey. I found them convincing as they ranged from unlikeable to engaging. Lena’s narrative voice is convincing even if not all her actions are. She is dangerously attracted to Audrey, but as the story continues, Jonathan captures her sympathy. Two neighborhood friends, Rumi and Anna, are lively, fun counterparts to the Verdeau clan.
Mayquist’s prose creates the shadowy, atmospheric quality I look for in a gothic. It relies a little too much on passive voice at times, but overall, as Lena is drawn in deeper and deeper, the line- by-line text delivers that sense of numb helplessness and confusion, contrasted with moments of clarity, like in the whole sequence in the city of Strasbourg.
At its best, Tripping Arcadia gave me moments of the feelings I had when I read Elizabeth Hand’s Winterlong. Kit Mayquist goes on my list of new writers to watch for.