Lori Shepherd is an American woman living with a nice lawyer husband in Finch, a small English village outside of Oxford. She is rich, but does her part by contributing to various causes and helping out around the town, going into Oxford to help at the homeless shelter, picking up trash at the church with her two young sons, and volunteering at the hospital. She visits patients who don't have family or friends to visit them. There, she meets Elizabeth Beacham, a terminally ill woman whose only family is a brother who seems to have disappeared years ago. Lori becomes determined to track down this brother who couldn't even be bothered to visit, and with the help of one of Beacham's neighbours, begins unraveling the mystery. Lori thought she was a lonely old woman living from hand to mouth, but the reality is much different. As always, the ghost of "Aunt Dimity" plays the sounding board to Lori's problems and theories, until the truth finally comes out.
The concept behind the Aunt Dimity series is kind of cute, with Lori coming home to talk to the ghost who communicates through the act of writing in a special journal. It's intriguing, but ultimately doesn't mask the utter silliness of the plot. There's no real tension behind the story and not much meat to it either. If there was, we wouldn't need the subplot of Lori playing matchmaker for Beacham's neighbour. And isn't it a nice coincidence that the perfect suitor just presents herself while they're trying to figure the case out! There's no real conflict in the story, with just a little at the end when everything's wrapped up nice and tidy, Lori's found out the truth and has to get her two cents in before leaving the scene. Even that's over in a few paragraphs. What's amusing about this lack of tension is the number of times that Atherton ends a chapter on what appears to be an ominous note, only to have any shred of anxiety dissipate within the first paragraph of the next chapter.
There's really nothing wrong with a nice story about nice characters who have a flaw or two, but no really bad traits. Yes, Lori can have a bit of a temper, but the only time it really asserts itself, she quickly realizes she's been rude and moves to apologize. The other time it comes out is the comeuppance at the end, where the story has justified it. And that's the perfect word for this book: nice. It's a pleasant read, not very taxing, and it can be fun at times. The interplay between Lori and Gabriel (the neighbour) is nicely done, if a bit forced at times. Aunt Dimity is neat too, when she's in the book (which isn't all that often, considering her name's on the front cover...she should sue for more screen time). She's wise and always helpful, and Atherton captures her small English-village sensibility perfectly. In fact, she captures the entire village, making Finch a place I'd really like to spend time in (though I'm probably much too reserved for all the busybodies that live there).
There are two main problems with the book, aside from what I've mentioned earlier. First is the fact that Lori really doesn't do that much to solve the puzzle. She has a lot of information just fall into her lap. Her friend Emma does the Internet searches for information on the brother, a couple of her homeless charges provide her with information on where he used to live, and Dimity provides the perfect clue that opens up everything (maybe that's why her name's in the title). Lori has the wrong idea almost from the outset and refuses to think otherwise until she finds out the real situation.
The second problem is that I don't buy the setup to this story at all. We're led to believe that Miss Beacham set up the beginning of the trail of clues for Lori to sniff out based on the knowledge that Lori has told her that she likes mysteries and has solved a few in the past. That's fine. However, Miss Beacham never leaves her sick-bed at the hospital, so how could she do this? She must have had some outside help to plant everything just right. Sure, the ending of the book explains it to the reader, but for somebody supposedly as intelligent as Lori, that should have been the first question on her mind. How did Miss Beacham do this, and who helped her?
There are a lot of complaints about Aunt Dimity & the Next of Kin, but ultimately I didn't feel like I had wasted my time. It won't take that much time to read for any but the slowest reader, and it is the perfect tonic for someone who just wants a really quiet book. There is a running theme about being alone and how humans need social interaction to thrive, but that's about it. This book is not for everybody, but if you like this sort of thing, it's a great example of it.
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