Tripping Arcadia: Kit Mayquist is a writer to watch

Tripping Arcadia by Kit Mayquist science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsTripping Arcadia by Kit Mayquist

Tripping Arcadia by Kit Mayquist science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe 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.

Published in February 2022. From debut author Kit Mayquist, a propulsive and atmospheric modern Gothic with all the splendor of The Great Gatsby . . . and all the secrets, lies, and darkness that opulence can hide. Med school dropout Lena is desperate for a job, any job, to help her parents, who are approaching bankruptcy after her father was injured and laid off nearly simultaneously. So when she is offered a position, against all odds, working for one of Boston’s most elite families, the illustrious and secretive Verdeaus, she knows she must accept it—no matter how bizarre the interview or how vague the job description. By day, she is assistant to the family doctor and his charge, Jonathan, the sickly, poetic, drunken heir to the family empire, who is as difficult as his illness is mysterious. By night, Lena discovers the more sinister side of the family, as she works overtime at their lavish parties, helping to hide their self-destructive tendencies . . . and trying not to fall for Jonathan’s alluring sister, Audrey. But when she stumbles upon the knowledge that the Verdeau patriarch is the one responsible for the ruin of her own family, Lena vows to get revenge—a poison-filled quest that leads her further into this hedonistic world than she ever bargained for, forcing her to decide how much—and who—she’s willing to sacrifice for payback. The perfect next read for fans of Mexican GothicTripping Arcadia is a page-turning and shocking tale with an unforgettable protagonist that explores family legacy and inheritance, the sacrifices we must make to get by in today’s world, and the intoxicating, dangerous power of wealth.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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