Arrowood by Laura McHugh


Laura McHugh

Arrowood is the most ornate and grand of the historical houses that line the Mississippi River in southern Iowa. But the house has a mystery it has never revealed: It’s where Arden Arrowood’s younger twin sisters vanished on her watch twenty years ago—never to be seen again.

After the twins’ disappearance, Arden’s parents divorced and the Arrowoods left the big house that had been in their family for generations. And Arden’s own life has fallen apart: She can’t finish her master’s thesis, and a misguided love affair has ended badly. She has held on to the hope that her sisters are still alive, and it seems she can’t move forward until she finds them.

When her father dies and she inherits Arrowood, Arden returns to her childhood home determined to discover what really happened to her sisters that traumatic summer.


While Arrowood seemed to have all the elements of a decent gothic mystery, it turned out to be a complete disappointment as the author failed to evoke any atmosphere despite the setting of the ancestral home going to ruin. Arrowood is very much at the centre of the plot and while it has an interesting history, the setting isn’t used to its full potential and you never get the sense Arden is in any real danger. There are interesting elements introduced though, like the dampness and the sounds of running water, all of which initially make you think the house could be haunted but they never really go anywhere. A lone woman in a huge empty house that had seen better days deserved to have a far more sinister ambience and would’ve gone a long way into expanding the mystery which turned out to be quite pedestrian in the end.

However, the author does do a good job of describing Keokuk which we see through the eyes of Arden as she thinks back to the places she once loved that have sadly fallen into ruin or have simply disappeared. The sense of nostalgia is quite potent here and the decline in the community makes for sad reading, especially when you imagine how all those stately homes must have looked in their heyday.

The other problem I had was with my inability to connect with any of the characters, especially our main protagonist, Arden, with whom I should’ve been feeling a great deal of sympathy but ultimately didn’t. Arden is riddled with guilt for her perceived part in the disappearance of her sisters and she never really comes to terms with it so much so it colours her entire life. As a result, Arden seems to have fallen into the habit of running away from her problems and she makes a lot of bad choices, including a disastrous relationship with her college professor. It is this bad relationship and the irrational behaviour afterwards that leads to Arden walking away from yet another town and her degree course.

Back at Arrowood, Arden soon realises the consequences of running away when she fails to reconnect with her childhood friend, Ben, with whom she once had a budding romance. There is an impression that Arden had expected everything to have remained the same in Keokuk but she soon realises that not only has her childhood home changed, so have her friends. Ben, the boy who once dreamed of being an artist, has become an adult and it is far too late for their romance to be rekindled as he has moved on. Disappointed, Arden gets involved with Josh on a personal as well as a professional level but there is no real connection between them.

Like any good mystery, the layers are slowly peeled away to reveal the truth but the author gives us so much information in the flashbacks, there’s nothing left to explore in the present. What’s the point of Josh’s investigation if we already know everything? He seems little more than a plot device to throw doubt on Arden’s memories and his presence doesn’t seem that essential. He also comes across as a lot creepier than the person who turns out to be the main culprit. The big denouement is really disappointing, mainly because you see it coming a mile away, but there is no real explanation as to why things turned out this way. In fact, the waters are muddied by a further twist which again goes unexplained. This book had a lot of potential but it was just unfulfilling in the end.