Review: The Cellar by A. J. Whitten

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Book: The Cellar
Author: A. J. Whitten
Publisher: Graphia Books
Release date: May 2, 2011
Source: ARC from NetGalley

Summary: (from Goodreads) Meredith Willis is suspicious of Adrien, the new guy next door. When she dares to sneak a look into the windows of his house, she sees something in the cellar that makes her believe that Adrien might be more than just a creep – he may be an actual monster.

But her sister, Heather, doesn’t share Meredith’s repulsion. Heather believes Adrien is the only guy who really understands her. In fact, she may be falling in love with him. When Adrien and Heather are cast as the leads in the school production of Romeo and Juliet, to Heather, it feels like fate. To Meredith, it feels like a bad omen. But if she tries to tear the couple apart, she could end up in the last place she’d ever want to be: the cellar. Can Meredith convince her sister that she’s dating the living dead before it’s too late for both of them?

First impressions: The book opens with a tense scene where Meredith’s sister, Heather, blurts that she wishes she had died instead of their father. This family is falling apart after a car accident that killed their patriarch, and this bombshell of a statement sets up a very complicated relationship between the sisters that really sucked me in.

Lasting impressions: Unfortunately, there were not enough likable elements in this book for me to recommend it.

Conflicting impressions: For me, the book was overly graphic with characters I didn’t like or didn’t care about. I didn’t understand who I was supposed to be rooting for or against, particularly in light of the misleading tag line from the cover.

Overall impressions: Okay, deep breath. This is the first one star review I’ve given out on the blog. Usually if I dislike a book enough to give it one star, I’ve stopped reading, at which point I consider it a DNF, delete it from Goodreads, and don’t write a review. So what makes this book different?

For one, I actually wanted to finish it. As stated above, the opening has a good hook, and by the time I got to the midpoint I decided I just had to see how it was all going to tie up. I can’t say I regret reading the book, but I would certainly not recommend it to others – thus the one star.

Let me try to break down my feelings. First and foremost, I was really excited about this book because A) it’s a horror tale, which I love, and B) it’s based on Romeo and Juliet. Or so the cover, and to a lesser degree, the blurb, would have you think. I quickly discovered that the R & J link is not really there, other than the fact that Heather and Adrien take part in the school’s production.

The first point of confusion for me was whether I was supposed to be focused on Meredith or Heather. The story alternates between their perspectives, as well as Adrien’s. Meredith is told in first person, Heather and Adrien in a close third person. Adrien is the boy who moves in next door, and is some kind of zombie looking for eternal love. His primary motivation to find love is his loneliness, and so he can get rid of his fellow zombie/maternal figure, Marie. He decides he wants Heather, so he starts using his magical effects to make her fall in love with him.

The only problem is Heather’s sister, Meredith. She sees right through his charms. They don’t have an effect on her. This isn’t really discussed, just mentioned. Meredith spends most of the book getting more and more suspicious of the creepy guy who never takes off his sunglasses, seems to be brainwashing her entire family as well as the town, and who she sees burying things in the back yard.

It felt like that old Tom Hanks movie, The Burbs. In that way, I kind of liked it. However, while that movie was scary and suspenseful and creepy, this book quickly became just plain gross. Chapter 7 takes us inside Adrien’s house, where we witness him and Marie torturing a man they kidnapped for food. It’s very graphic, very disturbing, and almost made me physically ill while reading it on the train to work. I ended up skimming those pages because I couldn’t get through them.

The thing is, I’m not against violence or disturbing imagery in books. I read and have read a lot of crime and horror books. I like things scary and dark and eerie and yes, even sometimes gory. Here there was a lot of violence that seemed to pop up out of nowhere, and then beat you over the head with it. There was a lot of flesh-eating, a LOT of bugs, and most of it was truly grotesque. This book is not for the faint-hearted, I promise you. That said, it seems like the kind of gross-out material that would be really popular with adolescent boys.

Once we become aware that Adrien is a Bad Man, the story focuses on his quest to steal away Heather, and Meredith’s half-assed attempts to stop him. Heather refuses to think this guy could be bad and thinks that Meredith just doesn’t want her to be happy, so bats away Meredith’s attempts to reason with her. Meredith, despite being convinced Heather is in real danger, never does anything other than try to talk her out of it. I found this ingenuine, as I can guarantee that if my sister were hanging around with a suspected serial killer, I’d physically restrain her if need be. On top of everything, the horrifying things Meredith sees (that spellbound Heather can’t) are explained away by an eye disease. Silly old Meredith, just seeing things again. It didn’t quite work for me.

At times it felt like we were supposed to think Adrien was really in love with Heather, whether because he was truly lonely or used to be a good person/zombie, I don’t know. He never seemed motivated by love until the last few chapters, but his insistence on being with her throughout most of the book wasn’t written as purely psychotic or obsessed. Adrien, more than anyone, could really have benefited by some fleshing out. In my mind, you can’t have it both ways. Adrien is either a good guy who wants to find love and happiness, or he’s really as awful as he is depicted here, in which case he shouldn’t care at all about Heather’s fate. When he pulled a complete 180 in the final scenes, it felt contrived and contrary to his character.

In the end, it seemed like the point of the book was for Meredith to stop Heather and Adrien, but the climax of the book involves intervention by a third party that, while leading to some resolution for the girls, ultimately deprives our heroine of the chance to tie up the story for herself. It confused the plot more than enhanced it, and it disappointed me as a reader.

Thank you to NetGalley and Graphia/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, but this just wasn’t for me.

Rating: 1/5 stars

Click the stars for a description of my rating system

Want a different perspective? Check out this four star review by Palm Books Journal.

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8 thoughts on “Review: The Cellar by A. J. Whitten

  1. It's hard to balance a character who is deeply ambivalent, as this one sounds. Plus, it sounds as if the MC wasn't doing enough of her own thinking…

  2. Okay, I've decided I'm faint-hearted. I candle anything THAT gruesome or grotesque, especially when it's unnecessary. Thanks, NetGalley, but no thanks. Thanks for the heads-up; I'm already getting sick to my stomach just thinking about the bugs and the torturing.Asher K.

  3. From the blurb and your review I can already see myself being unsure about this one. Then you mentioned bugs and I shuddered.

  4. What a bummer. It's hard to give out one star reviews, but I'm glad you kept it honest. As always, you have reviews that touch on all points, so I think it deserves what it gets. What can you do, right?

  5. Eewwwww! Torture, bugs, and zombie love! Oh my, no, I don't think this is my kind of book. I know Heather is under a spell, but it would get really annoying I think to see her continually ignore her sister's warnings.

  6. @Catherine – I think you make a great point. The book didn't seem well balanced at all.@Asher – Welcome back to the blogosphere! Glad to see you again! 🙂 This book is definitely icky at times. I seriously almost threw up.@Laura – I know! The bugs! They were crawling all over the place and I just HATE bugs.@BookGeek – I know. At the end of the day, though it kills me to see that one lonely star, I have to be honest about my reading experience.@Smalls – Oh my gosh, it was SO annoying. Back and forth between the sisters: -You shouldn't be with him. -But I love him. -No, you don't. -You just don't want me to be happy! -Yeah, that's not it either, but this isn't going anywhere, so I give up. BAH!

  7. Yeah, none of the reviews I've come across for this one have really liked it. The R&J thing doesn't even make sense. But I will say you do have me curious about the graphic gore. I'm just wondering if I would be able to get through it.

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