Merilee Talbot Dunlap, in the midst of a divorce, moves with her two children, Lily and Colin, to the Atlanta suburb of Sweet Apple, Georgia. It’s not her first time starting over, but her efforts are complicated by an anonymous local blogger who dishes about the scandalous events that caused her marriage to fail.
Still, Merilee finds some peace in the quaint cottage she rents from town matriarch Sugar Prescott. At 93 years old, the stubborn and irascible surviving member of the Prescott family immediately recognizes aspects of herself in Merilee and finds herself doing something she has never — opening up about her own colorful past.
Sugar’s stories provide Merilee a unique perspective on the town and its wealthy school moms in their tennis whites and shiny SUVs, as well as her new friendship with wealthy and powerful Heather Blackford. Alone and desperate to forge new friendships, Merilee is immediately charmed by the glamorous young mother’s seemingly perfect life and allows herself to drawn into Heather’s sphere. After all, in a small town like Sweet Apple, where sins and secrets are as likely to be found behind the walls of gated mansions as in the dark woods surrounding Merilee’s house, appearances and acceptance into local social circles is everything.
But Merilee discovers that the true nature of friendship isn’t always what it seems. In fact, the deception of friendship can be shockingly dangerous.
Best-selling author Karen White’s 23rd novel focuses on two women, Merilee and Sugar, and their unlikely friendship.
Cantankerous and opinionated Sugar lives alone in her family home, but rents the cottage that her father built for her and her groom, Tom, during World War II. Sadly, Tom did not return from the war and Sugar never remarried. Childless, she is the last surviving member of her family and determined not to sell the family land to developers eager to acquire it. Sugar instantly senses something mysterious about her new tenant and, although determined not to get involved in Merilee’s turbulent life, finds herself not just drawn to Merilee, but inexplicably opening up to Merilee about her own family history and experiences. Sugar recognizes in Merilee the same kind of resiliency that has sustained her through trying times.
Merilee does indeed harbor secrets about which she carries enormous guilt and shame. Shunned by her own unforgiving parents, Merilee is concerned when Wade Kimball, the handsome developer grandson of Sugar’s dearest friend, insists that Merilee looks familiar and he’s certain that he’s seen her somewhere before. Although Merilee feels she is not yet ready to begin dating, her attraction to Wade is undeniable — and mutual. Gradually, the two grow closer.
Wade is the former fiancee of Heather Blackford, the most powerful and influential mother at Lily and Colin’s private school. Heather is not just the class mother. She is the fashionable, self-appointed leader that none of the other mothers dare challenge or anger. And when Heather welcomes Merilee into the social circle, appointing her to serve on the committee for the school’s annual fundraising gala, Merilee cannot spurn Heather’s overtures. To do so would destroy Lily’s dreams of being a popular cheerleader. And, truthfully, Merilee is flattered by Heather’s attention and generosity. She naively and gullibly believes Heather is sincere, ignoring Sugar’s warnings . . . almost until it’s too late.
There are no secrets that time will not eventually reveal, . . . That’s the measure of friendship, isn’t it? Knowing people who will jar your secret and store it in a dark cellar forever. People who know it’s never about the secret itself, but the keeping of it. And that’s something to keep in mind the next time the lights go out.
White’s narrative alternates between the current-day perspectives of Sugar and Merilee, Sugar’s first-person narrative describing details of her life in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, and posts from “The Playing Field’s Blog” which are frequently hilarious. Each post contains observations and opinions about modern life and the many changes in Sweet Apple, as well as local gossip, and a popular Southern saying, along with examples of when the phrase might be apropos. About the new Costco in Sweet Apple, the blogger, identified only as “Your Neighbor,” observes that until the store opened “I never for the life of me would have thought I needed a six-gallon jug of Tide or seventy-two rolls of toilet paper ‘just in case.’ I resisted getting my own membership card for the longest time, but like all the other lemmings here in Sweet Apple, I caved and got one. It’s got a big gold star on it (I thought I was special until I saw everybody else had one, too, so I stopped bragging that I was a gold star Costco member’), and I proudly flash it whenever I enter the store in need of a jar of nuts the size of my head or breakfast cereal in a container large enough to feed a third world country for a week.”
Like Sugar’s instinct about Merilee, White’s taut construction of the story keeps readers on edge. Something is not quite right about the friendship between Merilee and Heather. White ensures that the clues she inserts at expertly timed intervals are intriguing enough to propel the action at a precise pace. Sugar and Merilee reluctantly grow closer in spite of Sugar’s sometimes sharp criticisms of Merilee’s choices and parenting, and tough love (“Sometimes you’re the bug, and sometimes you’r the windshield, and that will never change, no matter how old you get.”) Sugar finds that, despite her resolve to remain the solitary individual she has been for so many years, every time she is with Merilee is “like being confronted with a younger version of herself. It had been hard enough living through her youth the first time around, and she had no intention of reliving it. But standing on that front porch was like standing in a wind tunnel that sucked her into Merilee’s life whether she wanted to go or not.” Sugar’s revelations about the losses she has sustained over the years resonate with Merilee because of her own losses. She understands and appreciates why Sugar has developed a tough persona that belies her tender and supportive heart, and can’t help but feel affection and respect for the old woman. Their tenuous friendship, “loosely based on proximity and loneliness, and a stubbornness to survive a life that wasn’t of their own choosing,” ultimately stands in stark contrast to the friendship offered Merilee by Heather.
White again creates a story in which the setting is a major character. The characteristics of Sweet Apple are as integral to the story as those of its residents. The Night the Lights Went Out is a study of three strong, determined women, each driven by her own demons, regrets, and sadness, and motivated by events in her past about which she has not yet fully achieved reconciliation. White layers complex, nuanced characters with observations about societal expectations and a craftily plotted mystery. Sugar and Merilee are as endearing as Heather is tragically infuriating, making The Night the Lights Went Out an entertaining and satisfying exploration of the power and impact of friendship in which “Your Neighbor” wisely opines that “[l]ife shouldn’t be an unbroken road of wonderful. It’s the curves in the road that build character and show us our mettle. Every path has its puddles, but that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t travel them,. we just need to remember to wear our boots and bring along our friends and those who love u. They can life us over some of the puddles, or pull us out when we fall in. And we can do the same for them. Life’s journey doesn’t mean much without friends who love you to come along for the ride.” Readers will enjoy coming along for the ride with Sugar, Merilee, et al. in The Night the Lights Went Out.
Author Karen White has graciously provided one (1) paperback copy of The Night the Lights Went Out!