The God of the Woods: A Novel

Image of The God of the Woods: A Novel
Release Date: 
July 2, 2024
Riverhead Books
Reviewed by: 

“block out a few days on your calendar to settle into a cushy chair, put up your feet, and fall helplessly—and gleefully—into this riveting story.”

This lush, lusty, epic novel is sure to please readers who embrace stories about the secrets, crises, and scandalous lives of dynastic, big money families. Fictional ones, of course.

Set in a prestigious summer camp in the Adirondack Mountains, a child goes missing in the middle of the night because the two on-duty camp counselors sneaked out of the cabin when everyone was asleep. An undercurrent of controlled tension builds to a crescendo when word spreads that the empty bed belongs to Barbara Van Laar, daughter of the family that has owned the camp for half a century.

And it's not the first time a Van Laar child has gone missing.

Author Liz Moore digs deep in the grand literary style of classic novels from the ’60s and ’70s to tell this story from the perspective of the (mostly) lovable characters. And there are many with multiple intersecting, interconnecting story threads that mesh and cross throughout the book.

Distant fathers, loving mothers, belligerent manipulative teenagers, snooty entitled adults, bad boyfriends, compassionate locals, loyal blue-collar camp workers.

Here is a sampling of the cast of characters:

As sole support of her mother and little brother, Louise Donnadieu needed her camp counselor job. When Barbara Van Laar's bed turned up empty that morning she knew she was in big trouble. She'd left the cabin to go partying after lights out the night before.

"She had the advantage of athleticism, and the disadvantage of extreme poorness. She had the advantage of intelligence, and the disadvantage of a mother who was constantly, notoriously drunk. But it was her unusual prettiness that set her apart, that shuttled her to a place of social notoriety without her consent, that caused a sort of unrest all around her that she generally wanted no part of."

Tracy didn't want to go away to camp. It wasn't how she wanted to spend her summer:

"Her father had paid her to attend. . . . This was what it took, after a week of negotiations that had concluded with a weekend-long standoff in her room: cold hard cash, a hundred dollars of it—fifty percent of which would be waiting for her upon her return.

"Last in line came Tracy, whose size, she believed, was already drawing stares from the others. . . .  Tugging her ill-fitting uniform shirt down over her ill-fitting uniform shorts, Tracy exhaled, releasing entirely the hope she had had for the summer."

But bunkmate Barbara Van Laar, sullen, manipulative, and unpredictable couldn't wait to get there. Her mother Alice was secretly relieved that Barbara would be gone for a while. She needed a break. Barbara arrived at Camp Emerson in a luxury town car with a driver at the wheel. She and Tracy were assigned as bunkmates and become good summer friends:

"There was Barbara, of course, regarding the contents of the pantry, her back to the room. She was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and Alice notices with a sort of disgust that her once-insubstantial bottom was round now, and her legs were the legs of a woman. Behind Barbara, the cook caught Alice's eye. Raised her hands as if helpless.

"Alice sighed. There was no point in saying anything—not today. Not when Barbara would be away for the whole rest of the summer. What harm, after all, in letting her indulge in one more helping of bread and butter and jam."

Peter Van Laar was introduced to seventeen-year-old Alice by her sister Delphine during what amounted to a blind date when Alice's society debut escort came down with the measles at the last minute. Later Peter invited Alice and her sister to visit him at his summer home in the Adirondacks.

"Peter caught sight of Alice before anyone else and rose from his chair with formality. . . 'Did you find your accommodations comfortable?' he said.

"Alice was struck, suddenly, by the stiff way he spoke, as if he were from another time. Their friends in the city were loose-lipped, irreverent, delighted by scandal. Politeness, they believed, was only to be directed at those who ranked lower than you, who served you in some way. . . ."

Two days after Alice turned 18, she and Peter were married. No bridesmaids, no maid of honor, no honeymoon. Peter IV was born ten months later. They nicknamed him Bear because of all the Peters already in the family:

 "Before and after Bear's birth, she was treated by Peter as the child she was. This meant of course that he laughed at her; but his eyes were warm as he did, and he sometimes laid an affectionate hand on her head when she displayed what he termed her lack of common sense, and sighed, as if contemplating the magnitude of all that he would have to teach her. She didn't mind; she felt protected. . . ."

"The nursery was dark and quiet. She tiptoed into it. The new nurse, Lorraine, was asleep on one side. Barbara was asleep on the other. For two minutes, Alice listened, standing in her nightgown in the center of the room. But there was only silence.

"She tiptoed out again, and as she was closing the door behind her, there it came: Mamma.

"She pivoted. Drifted back toward the nursery that used to be Bear's. Put a hand on the doorknob.


"She jumped.

"At the end of the hallway was Peter, frowning.

"'Go back to bed,' he said."

Carl Stoddard, the gardener at the camp in those early days, had been on the volunteer fire brigade in town. When Bear went missing, he was the one who answered the emergency phone call:

"It was seven in the evening already when the phone rang in the fire hall, jolting Carl Stoddard awake. He'd fallen asleep on a cot after a long day in the sun. . . . By the third ring, he was in action, lifting the receiver with the same trepidation he always felt when answering. He disliked speaking in general; speaking into a telephone was worse."

T.J. Hewett didn't want the job of Camp Director, but there was no one else:

"There was such confidence, such finality, in T. J. Hewitt's voice. As if she were the employer of Alice, and not the other way around. . . . Her hair was newly short, lopped into a bowl shape, so crooked and wrong-looking that Alice imagined that T.J. had done it herself. . . . She'd been Tessie Jo at the time, a frilly name, a name for a doll or a cow . . ."

John Paul McLellan told Louise his father was a business associate and close friend of the Van Laar family. John Paul and Louise had been an item, or at least Louise considered herself his girlfriend even if he didn't:

"He was practically related to the Van Laars, he reminded her. Mr. Van Laar was his godfather. Their fathers worked together: the Van Laars as the founders of the bank that had financed all of Albany and much of New York City, too; . . . One day, John Paul said, he would take over the bank for both the families. John Paul could easily get Louise a job at the camp, he said. All he had to do was ask. . . . Throughout this period, she has somehow maintained a relationship with John Paul—who had finally finished his degree at Union, though it took him six years and two forgiving deans to do so."

Louise noticed Lee Towson in the kitchen juggling utensils. He noticed her, too. She imagined his body beneath his clothes:

"Lee Towson arrived at the start of the summer and immediately caused a stir. He was hired to work in the commissary as a prep chef and dishwasher. . . . He is fine looking and tall, with thickly lashed eyes and shoulder-length hair that he keeps tied in a low ponytail. . . .

". . . rumors about him include a stint as a roustabout for a traveling circus, a stint in jail for possession of controlled substances, and a habit of sleeping around. . . . For the past two months, Lee and Louise have engaged in low-level flirtation at every turn. . . ."

Fourteen-year-old Lowell Cargill arrived at camp carrying a guitar, totally chick bait. Tracy fell for him on sight:

"And in the middle of the crowd—the guitar player himself—was Lowell Cargill. . . . Tracy took a step backward, her face reddening. . . .

"And through the crowd—was she imagining it?—she caught the gaze of Lowell Cargill, and forced herself to hold it, hold it, to not look away until he did."

Victor Hewett, a long-time loyal camp employee knew little Bear Van Laar very well. Bear and T. J. had played together when they were little:

"The thought occurred to him that he had not set eyes on Tessie Jo since morning. Normally, this wouldn't have concerned him overmuch. All summer, she was given free rein to run about the grounds—usually with Bear on her heels. Her relationship with the Van Laars was different from her father's; they accepted her as a playmate for Bear, as someone who could keep an eye on their adventurous son."

Move this book to the top of your reading pile. Or block out a few days on your calendar to settle into a cushy chair, put up your feet, and fall helplessly—and gleefully—into this riveting story.