The Woman in the Lake
Despite the title, the real subject of this engrossing novel is the spectacular golden gown that travels between two worlds: 1763 England, where Lady Isabella Gerard hopes to free herself from an abusive husband, and present-day England, when Fenella Brightwell finds the historic gown she stole as a teenager coming back to haunt her, literally. Along with the gown, which exerts a lethal power over anyone who comes in contact with it, other characters straddling the two worlds are the town of Swindon and its mysterious smuggling operation, the Moonrakers. Fen’s story starts quietly, driven by spooky hints that her manipulative ex is stalking her while she’s trying to put her life back together. Isabella’s portion begins with a beating and the dramatic decision to murder her husband, while conducting a torrid affair and practicing her art in the meantime.
But Fen’s story gains traction when she, like Isabella, discovers the man she trusted has a secret, and the stories of these two women prove connected by a third: Constance, Isabella’s lady’s maid, who proves the most resourceful, wily, and cool-headed among them, though her decisions about the gown risk her life as well as the lives of others. The writing is strong and the twists and surprises enjoyable; the rising danger keeps the pages turning, and the final reveals deliver a satisfying jolt. As difficult as it can be to plot a novel like this one, Cornick does a skillful job planting clues, weaving the worlds together, and making the history of old Swindon come alive in the present, even if the supernatural power of the mysterious golden gown is never satisfactorily explained. That none of these characters are particularly virtuous makes them all the more likeable, engaging, and real.