I was drawn to Castle Ugly based almost entirely on its promisingly terrible cover art: nekkid people sexin' on a beach, with a turreted house looming in the background. Also, because it's called Castle Ugly, a terribly promising title. "Behold!," I thought to myself, "this is surely a delightful mid-century Gothic!"
Unfortunately, Castle Ugly is no more than a forgettable soap opera of a novel in the "beautiful rich people have problems too!" vein, featuring irksome characters and with obvious, annoying literary pretensions.
Also, and perhaps the worst of its many shortcomings: nothing happens for more than two thirds of the book. And everything that does happen winds up being icky and semi-incestuous.
Oh, the plot. We begin on the gorgeous south coast of France, where beautiful redheaded Sarah - slim, tanned, 31, mother of three, life of leisure, gaggingly handsome French husband, etc., - is preparing for a visit from an old family friend, David. The sight of him sends her spiraling back in time to her ripping childhood in 1930s New York. We meet her beautiful mother, also Sarah, and her handsome father, Harry, who hate each other loudly and ignore their sensitive eleven-year-old. We travel with young Sarah, known as Sally in her youth, to summer in Cape Cod at the titular Castle Ugly, which is paired Very Meaningfully with the Casa Lovely, the nearby mansion of another family of Beautiful People With Secrets (young David's family, by the way). They're all old friends and the summer is spent browning on sparkling beaches, picnicking on sparkling beaches, and whatever else one does on sparkling beaches. Yes, that too. Sally and David discover the delightful frisson of sexual tension (yes, at 11 and 12) while their parents ignore their children to carry on any number of torrid affairs.
Sally's mother's cousin, (and uncle to Sally's future husband!), another gaggingly handsome Frenchman, comes to spend the summer with the family. Because this reader wasn't born yesterday, it's clear that everyone is fucking everyone else; the only question is in what order. The summer ends with Sally's mother and Sally's mother's cousin being shot to death on the same sparkling beach where they've done everything else. A week later a Very Meaningful hurricane strikes Cape Cod, sweeping the sparkling beach and Castle Ugly itself off into the sea. The mystery remains unsolved, everyone goes back to New York, and that's that.
Or is it? We're only 2/3 through the novel, so I'm sorry to say that is, emphatically, not that. Back on the south coast of France, adult Sally and adult David spend an afternoon together. He becomes progressively more hateful, tells her that a girl "always remembers her first man" (oh, god), and drops Very Meaningful hints about their post-murder, pre-adult relationship. After some predictable histrionics, adult Sally spits out that "you left me," and we're sent spinning back to the past.
Long story short, the 20 year old Sally and 21 year old David spent another summer together and got involved. David, tipping us off to future assy behavior, talks her into having sex with him by telling her "let me worry about that" when she frets about the consequences of unprotected sex. (Yes, really.) Anyway, they decide to get married, go visit an uncle of his who was present during the murder summer for his blessing, and then David dumps her and disappears. The end.
Alas, no. We wind up back in the present. Adult David explains that his uncle confessed to killing Sally's mother and her French cousin and a whole sordid story about people passing their lovers around during that summer emerge. The uncle commits suicide and David decides that Sally is too like her mother to ever commit to him and leaves her. Adult David, however, has just learned from his mother - Sally's father's mistress, as well as David's uncle's mistress, ew - that the uncle was with his (David's) mother that night and couldn't have killed Sally's mother. David's mother drops hints that it was actually Sally's father who did the deed. Anyway, adult David now feels very guilty about having dumped young Sally and wants her back. Because, you see, a girl never forgets her first man. (Yes, he says it again.) Whatever. They have sex, despite Sally's earnest desire not to. David is really charming during this scene, manipulating her confused and upset state and pulling her hair to force her head back so he can kiss her before talking her into the backseat of a car for some of the ol' pushmi-pullyu.
The lesson about sex and gender relations in mid-century Beautiful Rich People Have Problems Too! novels, of course, is this: every woman secretly wants to be dominated by some man, especially if he was the first man she ever slept with. Because a girl never really forgets her first man.
The novel ends without any real resolution to the David/Sally relationship. We learn that Sally suspects her gaggingly handsome French husband (who is, remember, both her cousin and the nephew of her murdered mother's murdered lover - and who also, by the way, looks exactly like his dead uncle) is fucking around with his oldest female friend. There's also no real closure to the "mystery" - we never find out for certain who killed the mother and lover. Sally concludes the novel by wishing for another Very Meaningful hurricane to whip up and wash everything into the sea, but "here, in this part of the world, no such wind has ever been known to blow."
And there, in as much of a nutshell as I can produce, is Castle Ugly.
Tube Journeys: N/A
Rating: Three F minuses and a snooze alarm.