Whether it’s harvesting sponges in a canvas suit, or retrieving a golden cross on Epiphany, Tarpon Springs is famous for its diving. But when you dive into Emilie Richards’s poignant thriller The House Guests (Mira Books, 2021), set in this historic Pinellas town, you’ll find more than quaint traditions (or marine invertebrates). You’ll discover a riveting domestic suspense that gets darker and richer the deeper you swim.
The story begins with two mothers struggling to keep their families together. Cassie, a Tarpon Springs native, has just moved home from New York with her angsty step-daughter Savannah in tow; both are haunted by the mysterious death of Cassie’s husband. Amber, a single mom with a troubled history, works hard to support her teenage son Will – while keeping them both well off the radar. After a bizarre coincidence brings the two families together, an unlikely friendship blooms. But just when their lives seems to be getting on track, the past comes back to haunt them, placing all they love in grave danger.
Richards, who grew up in Gulfport, vividly remembers an elementary school trip to Tarpon Springs, where she was fascinated by the city’s Greek traditions. This heritage figures prominently in The House Guests: Much of the action takes place in Cassie’s family’s traditional Greek restaurant, and Greek cuisine and holiday traditions abound. This in itself makes the book quite enjoyable (it doesn’t hurt that Cassie’s favorite thing to cook is baklava).
At more than 500 pages, The House Guests is a hefty volume. Like a good Polaroid picture (minus the shaking), the characters develop slowly and vividly. Richards weaves complex and a sympathetic portraits of people wrestling, not always gracefully, with grief. Even teen drama queen Savannah, who starts the book by spending $800 she finds on the ground to throw a rager while her mom is away, learns to channel her anger and bewilderment at her father’s death into a kind, if misguided, quest to help Will find his father. In the end, I wanted to hug her.
It was no surprise, then, to hear that Richards puts a lot of effort into her characters. She credits at least some of her acumen for human nature to growing up in post-WWII Gulfport, where kids roamed freely and got to know lots of neighbors and townsfolk.
“It taught me a lot about human nature,” she says. She works extensively through character sketches and autobiographies in preparation for plotting out their actions. “But even so,” she adds, “they still surprise me when I’m actually writing them.”
Me, too. In fact, by time the novel’s climactic scene rolls around – trapping Amber, Will, and Cassie in the restaurant’s kitchen with a dangerous killer – I found myself pretty invested in the hope that these lost souls might, to quote The Brady Bunch, somehow form a family and overcome their past.
But they’ll have to survive it first…