There’s something about the Maine coast in winter that lends itself to sinuous storytelling with more than a little atmospheric menace about it. Elizabeth Hand’s stunning novel “Generation Loss” is a personal favorite in this category, abounding with flawed characters, hidden agendas and a stark landscape. The recent publication of Kat Rosenfeld’s new novel “You Must Remember This” begs a question – is it time to declare Maine Gothic its own subgenre?

Rosenfeld’s novel has mood to spare: the bulk of the novel is set in the winter of 2014, as narrator Delphine prepares for what’s likely to be her grandmother Miriam’s final Christmas with the family. That this Christmas is taking place in the longtime family home in Bar Harbor – a house with the evocative name of The Whispers, no less – is where the tactile sense of place begins to settle in, but there’s more than meets the eye here when it comes to both the house and the family.

From the novel’s earliest pages, we know that Miriam, summoned from her bed by what seems to be the memory of her long-gone love, walks out onto a frozen reach and plummets through the ice. Where exactly this fits in with the narrative of that fateful holiday isn’t entirely clear from the outset, though Delphine eventually provides some welcome context about a third of the way into the book.

Delphine is living with her mother in Maine as a result of her life in New York City taking a turn for the worst. This includes an ill-advised relationship with a guy who felt that “Stalin was misunderstood”  – which, as red flags in a relationship go, seems pretty significant. “It wasn’t long after that things in New York fell apart and I had fled up the coast to Bar Harbor, tail tucked firmly between my legs,” Delphine recalls. “That was June.”

Besides Delphine and Miriam, Christmas at the Whispers involves Delphine’s mother Dora, Dora’s two siblings, and Miriam’s caregiver Adam – with whom Delphine has been carrying on a secret relationship. In a series of flashbacks, Rosenfeld also guides the reader through Miriam’s own early life, including a harrowing sequence set against the Great Fires of 1947, which makes for some of the novel’s most thrilling reading.

Rosenfeld establishes a few parallels between Delphine’s furtive relationship with Adam and Miriam’s with Theodore, the fisherman with whom she falls in love – and who eventually saves her life. A question of what, precisely, happened to Theodore lingers over much of the novel; needless to say, this is one of the ominous secrets that suffuses the plot. But this is also a novel in which nearly every character has its own reasons for secrecy about various aspects of their lives. Even stricken with dementia, Miriam has a tendency toward curiosity: “Mimi had a habit of slipping away when somebody’s back was turned, wandering into other residents’ rooms or rattling for entry at locked doors.”


As the family gathers for Christmas, a series of disturbances makes the holiday feel increasingly off-kilter, from missing family photographs to mysterious visitors seen in the distance. There’s also the matter of Miriam’s fateful walk, which draws closer and closer as the book advances – along with the growing question that a remembered lover wasn’t what led her to her doom.

The parallels between Miriam and Delphine work up to a point, but there’s a certain moment where Rosenfeld begins revealing Miriam’s shortcomings as a mother, which both deepen our understanding of her and make it more clear why someone may have wanted her dead. The question of who might stand to inherit Miriam’s considerable wealth also looms over the proceedings – and leads a few late-in-the-book developments to reveal some interesting truths about the cast of characters.

Delphine has a penchant for sharp observations, noting of one character that he “was so bland that he barely registered as human, like someone had put half a personality in a man-shaped box and filled the rest of the empty space with foam packing peanuts.” That penchant for observation doesn’t always serve her well in understanding the convoluted history she’s facing, which includes Prohibition-era family secrets and a fateful disappearance years before she was born.

“You Must Remember This” blends past and present at a brisk pace, and the sense of place – both in terms of The Whispers and the surrounding landscape – is evocative. But what stands out the most is the character of Miriam, a woman capable throughout her life of epic contradictions. If you’re telling a story where the plot twists and turns, it helps to build it around a vividly rendered character; Rosenfeld accomplishes that here, with atmosphere to spare.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of four books, most recently the novel “Ex-Members.” He has reviewed books for the New York Times, Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.

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