The Gate House, Nelson DeMille

Grand Central, 2008, 677 pages, C$27.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-446-53342-3

Even twenty years after publication, Nelson DeMille’s The Gold Coast remains an oddity in the author’s bibliography: It’s not a thriller as much as it’s a romantic drama, a social study and a mournful look at the end of an era.  Set among the Long Island upper-crust, it tells of a tragic love triangle between a narrator, his wife and a Mafia don having purchased a property in the very exclusive old-money “Gold Coast” community.  It doesn’t end well, and by the end of the novel our narrator left Long Island for an unspecified duration, taking a sailboat trip around the world while the old way of life on the Gold Coast continues to disappear.

As The Gate House begins, ten years later, John Sutter is back on Long Island to take care of business: After sailing for years and establishing himself in London, Sutter is compelled to head to the scene of The Gold Coast when his old housekeeper is hospitalized for her last few days.  Trying to take care of the estate, he discovers that his ex-wife is back in the area as well, and he is soon contacted by the son of his deceased nemesis for “business”.  Before long, Sutter is once again navigating the dangerous shoals between love, in-laws, mafia lords, yachting clubs, Iranian expatriates and everything else that can fit on Long Island.

Readers used to the typical DeMille protagonist will feel instantly comfortable with Sutter’s smart-alec narration.  Sutter, having married into money, had always been described in the previous book, as being in the Long Island aristocracy and yet not part of it.  After ten years away, his detachment is even more pronounced in the sequel.  His comments on everyone are acerbic and often very funny –no one deals with in-laws as acidly as a DeMille protagonist.  His narration gives some narrative energy to a very long book in which not much actually happens.

If there’s one thing to keep in mind about The Gate House, it’s that it’s not driven by plot.  Leisurely-paced, it spends pages ruminating on the events of the previous novel (so much so that even readers who haven’t read it will be thoroughly spoiled within a few chapters), and then lets plot points accumulate every fifty pages or so.  Even Sutter’s easygoing and witty narration can’t mask the slow pacing or the thinness of the story.  Much of the point in describing the evolution of Long Island feels like a rethread as well –if The Cold Coast was about the end of eras as nouveaux riches were invading the hunting grounds of the old aristocracy while the mafia was losing its influence, then The Gate House is an epilogue in which the invasion is complete, estates having being replaced by McMansions, and the mob being unable to provide leaders as capable as the previous ones.  The Gate House is also significantly lower in thrills, not only compared to the rest of DeMille’s work, but also compared to The Gold Coast itself –while the original was already more focused on relationships than on action sequences, the sequel is even more sedate, physical danger being late in threatening Sutter and sharply resolved when it happens.

For readers worried about DeMille’s career after a few duds in a row and an unhealthy obsession with 9/11 (the two being related), The Gate House offers a cautiously optimistic indication: DeMille is still obsessed with 9/11, as the events of the novel take place in 2002 and semi-faithfully recall the paranoia of the time.  Fortunately, The Gate House isn’t as  thoroughly insane as either Night Fall or Wild Fire… even if some character decisions seem dubious at best, or plot-driven at worst.  The Gate House is, at least, pleasant to read throughout, even entertaining to a degree that DeMille hadn’t been able to sustain since Up Country.  While the result won’t be enough to make any sceptic claim that DeMille is back, it’s better enough to make us believe that he’s taken a step away from the edge.

Since “too long” has been a feature of DeMille’s novels for a while, and since DeMille has dabbled with romance in a few books (in Spencerville, for instance), it’s not as if fans will be caught unprepared by The Gate House’s mixture of slow pacing, courtship and sarcastic narration.  But compared with the rest of DeMille’s pre-2001 bibliography, The Gate House isn’t much of a success.  It’s an average entry in the author’s bibliography –entertaining, even amusing, but far from reaching any kind of high point in either thrills or drama.  It will make fans happy… but it’s unlikely to draw in newer readers, or restore faith that he’s regained his touch.

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