The novel, narrated in first-person by 18-year-old Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood, tells the story of the Blackwood family. Merricat, her elder sister Constance, and their ailing uncle Julian live in a large house on large grounds, in isolation from the nearby village. Constance has not... read more (warning: may contain spoilers)
The novel, narrated in first-person by 18-year-old Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood, tells the story of the Blackwood family. Merricat, her elder sister Constance, and their ailing uncle Julian live in a large house on large grounds, in isolation from the nearby village. Constance has not left their home in six years, going no farther than her large garden. Uncle Julian, confined to a wheelchair, obsessively writes and re-writes notes for his memoirs, while Constance cares for him. Through Uncle Julian's ramblings the events of the past are revealed, including what has happened to the remainder of the Blackwood family: six years ago, both the Blackwood parents, an aunt (Julian's wife), and a younger brother were murdered — poisoned with arsenic, mixed into the family sugar and sprinkled onto blackberries at dinner. Julian, though poisoned, survived; Constance, who did not put sugar on her berries, was arrested for and eventually acquitted of the crime. Merricat was not at dinner, having been sent to bed without dinner as punishment. The people of the village believe that Constance has gotten away with murder and the family is ostracized. The three remaining Blackwoods have grown accustomed to their isolation, and lead a quiet, happy existence. Merricat is the family's sole contact with the outside world, walking into the village twice a week and carrying home groceries and library books, where she is faced directly with the hostility of the villagers and often followed by groups of children, who taunt her.
Merricat is protective of her sister and is a practicioner of sympathetic magic. She feels that a dangerous change is approaching; her response is to reassure herself of the various magical safeguards she has placed around their home, including a book nailed to a tree. After discovering that the book has fallen down, Merricat becomes convinced that danger is imminent. Before she can warn Constance, a long-absent cousin, Charles, appears for a visit.
Charles quickly befriends the vulnerable Constance. Charles is aware of Merricat's hostility and is increasingly rude to her and impatient of Julian's weaknesses. He makes many references to the money the sisters keep locked in their father's safe, and is gradually wooing Constance, who begins to respond to his advances. Merricat perceives Charles as a threat, calling him a demon and a ghost, and tries various magical and otherwise disruptive means to drive him from the house. Uncle Julian is increasingly disgusted by Charles, and Constance is increasingly caught between the warring parties.
One night before dinner Constance sends her upstairs to wash her hands, and Merricat pushes Charles' still-smoldering pipe into a wastebasket filled with newspapers. The pipe sets fire to the family home. The villagers arrive to put out the fire, but once it's out, in a wave of long-repressed hatred for the Blackwoods, they begin throwing rocks at the windows, smashing them and surging into the house to destroy whatever they can, all the while chanting their children's taunting rhyme. Merricat and Constance, driven outdoors, are encircled by some of the villagers who seem on the verge of attacking them, en masse. Merricat and Constance flee for safety into the woods. In the course of the fire, Julian dies of what is implied to be a heart attack, and Charles attempts to take the family safe. While Merricat and Constance shelter for the night under a tree Merricat has made into a hideaway, Constance confesses for the first time that she always know Merricat poisoned the family. Merricat readily admits to the deed, saying that she put the poison in the sugar bowl because she knew Constance would not take sugar.
Upon returning to their ruined home, Constance and Merricat proceed to salvage what is left of their belongings, close off those rooms too damaged to use, and start their lives anew in the little space left to them. The house, now without a roof, resembles a castle "turreted and open to the sky". The villagers, awakening at last to a sense of guilt, begin to leave food on their doorstep. Charles returns once to try to renew his acquaintance with Constance, but she now knows his real purpose is greed and ignores him. The two sisters choose to remain alone and unseen by the rest of the world.
“"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead."”
“"Fate intervened. Some of us, that day, she led inexorably through the gates of death. Some of us, innocent and unsuspecting, took, unwillingly, that one last step to oblivion. Some of us took very little sugar."”
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