Full disclosure: I purchased this paperback edition new in the early 1990s. I do not know the author nor have I ever had any communication with her about this book or any other matter. I am an author of historical and contemporary romances, including a contemporary gothic romance.
Further disclosure: I first read Ammie, Come Home in the very early 1970s, shortly after its publication. I read it again approximately six months ago and may have also read it during the intervening 45 years. Most recently, however, I read it in the past couple of days, much more closely and with input from other Booklikes members.
On reading the book six months ago, I was disappointed in the structure because I found what seemed to be some plot holes and character inconsistencies. I set those concerns aside for this most recent read, in part to see if other readers caught some/any the same problems. They did. And while the blame often falls on the characters themselves, the plot holes don't, and so I went back to my usual technique of analyzing how the writer put the story together.
The good points first, because they contain fewer spoilers.
The writing is clean, of course. Being familiar with the historical (!) setting of the 1960s, I had no difficulty imagining the fashions and scenes that Michaels described.
The ultimate resolution carried some interesting details, including the relationship between some of the entities: While part of it was kind of conventional, part of it wasn't. I really liked that. Overall, it's a fine story, creepy and entertaining.
As with the Barbara Michaels gothic I read last week, Wait for What Will Come, I had difficulty connecting with the characters in Ammie. Ruth Bennett seems to be the main character, but the book isn't about her; it's more about her niece Sara. Unfortunately, not much of the story is told through Sara's point of view.
Ruth isn't a very dramatic character. She's a 44-year-old widow who works for the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. The story takes place in about 1966, and Ruth has been a widow since her young husband was killed in WW2 over twenty years before; she never remarried, never had children. She has recently -- within the last year or so -- inherited a distant cousin's Georgetown house, complete with antiques. (When Ruth made the upgrades to the kitchen and how she found the money to do it, I'm not sure. But she did.)
The story starts in November, when Ruth's niece Sara has been living there for a couple of months. She is a student, aged 20. She is described as very pretty, with long, straight, black hair, and given to wearing mini-skirts and high boots. Sara's boyfriend Bruce is also tall and slim, bearded, with a penchant for ostentatious vests and tight pants.
Through Sara, Ruth meets Patrick MacDougal, a professor of psychology/anthropology who is also the son of the very wealthy and very popular Washington hostess, Mrs. Jackson MacDougal. Pat is a tall, muscular, red-haired Irishman with a flamboyant (loud, arrogant, sometimes frequently obnoxious) personality. Bruce is one of his students (?) and they clash philosophically. Both are lapsed Catholics, though that last bit doesn't come out until toward the end.
So those are the main characters, and I just never had any connection to any of them. Ruth was, frankly, boring.
Sara and Bruce were all right. They made a believable couple and were reasonably consistent.
Pat MacDougal, on the other hand, just didn't appeal to me. Even after the "revelation" at the end, I couldn't reconcile myself to him at all.
And part of the reason was the car.
In 1966, when I was a senior in high school, there was no car sexier than the Jaguar XK-E. In fact, fifty years later, there is still no car sexier, in my humble opinion, than the Jaguar XK-E. I'm not alone in that opinion. That's why I knew immediately when the vehicle was described in Ruth's POV that it was a E-type. She may have described it as insect-like with the implication that it was a VW Beetle, but Ruth -- via Michaels the author -- references a Volkswagen in the same scene. Ruth knew what a Bug was, but she wasn't familiar with Jaguars.
For most readers, this sort of detail is unimportant. Many would have some idea that this is a low-slung, curvy sportscar, and that's about it.
But that low-slung sportscar is not the kind of vehicle I imagined a big, gruff anthropology professor to be driving. It just didn't fit with his personality. An old Ford Bronco maybe, or a Jeep? A Land Rover? He has issues with his socialite mother, so why a sexy little car? It just doesn't make sense.
It makes even less sense when more than two people try to fit in it, and at one point Pat has all three of the other characters in the car plus his German shepherd. Uh, no. The only way that works is if Pat piles them all into the XK-E 2+2, which in fact was only introduced in 1966. Michaels may or may not have known all this; I as a reader did.
This concern with Pat's car also made me wonder about Ruth not seeming to have a vehicle. I could understand that she may have walked to work or taken public transportation, but as a woman living alone for over twenty years, did she never have a vehicle to venture outside the metro D.C. area? Did she not have a garage? Did she never go anywhere after public transportation hours, or did she always rely on taxis? The 1960s were the height of American auto culture, the muscle cars and so on, and it seemed odd to me that Ruth didn't have a car. Everyone used Pat's.
Other readers brought up the issue with Pat's dog being left alone for a day and a half while Pat was cavorting with Ruth and the others, and with his rude treatment of the dog. I wondered why he even had her; he doesn't come across as a dog person and shows Lady no affection at all. Even if he expressed some sentiment such as she'd been given to him by a fellow faculty member or something, it would have made Lady's presence in the story more believable. She serves a purpose, but she comes across almost more of a canis ex machina than a pet.
Pat's house is too lived in to be believable. Messy is as messy does, and Ruth was too obsessively neat to even tolerate Pat's lax housekeeping. He makes light of the cleaning lady not showing up, but the place seems too messy, too dirty, to even have seen the ministrations of a cleaning person in the past two or three months. (And it doesn't match the owner of a E-type.)
In other words, there is nothing whatsoever to explain Pat's attraction to Ruth or Ruth's attraction to Pat. And Michaels never offers any substantive explanation. Nor does she integrate Ruth's marital background in such a way as to make it a part of the rest of the story. The relationship between these two never felt natural; it was almost, to me at least, as though Michaels was trying to put two mature people together romantically to balance the relationship between Sara and Bruce so she didn't have to tell the story from Sara's POV, but it never worked for me.
(That relationship worked even less in Michaels's second Georgetown book, Shattered Silk.)
In the climactic scene where the spirits of the past recreate the confrontation that led to the haunting, there were two details that left me stepping back and out of the willing suspension of disbelief. And since I don't yet know how to shield spoilers, I can only warn you that they are on their way.
The first is that Bruce breaks a window, inflicting severe injuries to his hand and letting rain into the house. After the scene is over, everyone leaves the house, but this broken window is not repaired and there is no mention the next day when they return of damage done by the incoming rain overnight.
The second is that Pat is dragged to the open French doors and shoved outside, to fall ten feet into the rose bushes. I never got the impression that the ground floor of Ruth's house was ten feet above the ground. If there was a raised foundation and steps from the street, I never got a mental image that this was the height of another story to the building. When the basement is explored, it's described as dark and damp, so surely it was more than a few feet below ground level? And a fall of ten feet into a bed of thorny winter roses would have been more than a little dangerous, potentially causing severe injuries, broken bones, or worse.
Many of Barbara Michaels's books treat these same issues much better -- everything from dogs and other pets to characters' past romantic entanglements to what vehicles they drive. Ammie, Come Home just wasn't one of them.
So it gets three stars as an okay read, better maybe for some people but not one of Barbara Michaels's best for me.