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The Last House on the Street: A Novel
by Diane Chamberlain

Published: 2023-01-17T00:0
Paperback : 384 pages
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A communityâ??s past sins rise to the surface in New York Times bestselling author Diane Chamberlainâ??s The Last House on the Street when two women, a generation apart, find themselves bound by tragedy and an unsolved, decades-old mystery.


Growing up in the well-to-do town ...

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A communityâ??s past sins rise to the surface in New York Times bestselling author Diane Chamberlainâ??s The Last House on the Street when two women, a generation apart, find themselves bound by tragedy and an unsolved, decades-old mystery.


Growing up in the well-to-do town of Round Hill, North Carolina, Ellie Hockley was raised to be a certain type of proper Southern lady. Enrolled in college and all but engaged to a bank manager, Ellie isnâ??t as committed to her expected future as her family believes. Sheâ??s chosen to spend her summer break as a volunteer helping to register black voters. But as Ellie follows her ideals fighting for the civil rights of the marginalized, her scandalized parents scorn her efforts, and her neighbors reveal their prejudices. And when she loses her heart to a fellow volunteer, Ellie discovers the frightening true nature of the people living in Round Hill.


Architect Kayla Carter and her husband designed a beautiful house for themselves in Round Hillâ??s new development, Shadow Ridge Estates. It was supposed to be a home where they could raise their three-year-old daughter and grow old together. Instead, itâ??s the place where Kaylaâ??s husband died in an accident--a fact known to a mysterious woman who warns Kayla against moving in. The woods and lake behind the property are reputed to be haunted, and the new home has been targeted by vandals leaving threatening notes. And Kaylaâ??s neighbor Ellie Hockley is harboring long-buried secrets about the dark history of the land where her house was built.

Two women. Two stories. Both on a collision course with the truth--no matter what that truth may bring to light--in Diane Chamberlain's riveting, powerful novel about the search for justice.

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Iâ??m in the middle of a call with a contractor when Natalie, our new administrative assistant, pokes her head into my office. I put the call on hold.

â??This woman is in the foyer and she says she has an eleven oâ??clock appointment with you, but I donâ??t have her on your calendar.â? She looks worried, as though afraid sheâ??s already screwed up. â??Ann Smith?â?

The name is unfamiliar. â??I donâ??t have any appointments today,â? I say, glancing at the time on my phone. Eleven-oh-five. I should see the woman in case the screwup is on my end. Iâ??ve only been back to work a couple of weeks and donâ??t completely trust myself to think straight yet. â??You can send her in.â?

A woman appears at my open office door as I wrap up my call and get to my feet. Sheâ??s not at all my usual clientâ??those thirty- or forty-somethings whoâ??ve amassed enough money to build the home of their dreams. No, Ann Smith looks closer to sixty-five or seventy, though she appears to be fighting her age with vivid red shoulder-length hair. She wears mirrored sunglasses that mask her eyes, but nothing can camouflage the way her red lipstick bleeds into the lines around her mouth.

â??Ann Smith?â? I ask, smiling and curious as I reach out to shake her hand. â??Iâ??m Kayla Carter. Please come in and have a seat. I didnâ??t have you on my schedule todayâ??something must have fallen through the cracksâ??but I have about half an hour. What can I do for you?â?

She doesnâ??t return my smile as she sits down in the red Barcelona chair I offer her. I wish sheâ??d remove her sunglasses. I see only my warped reflection instead of her eyes. Itâ??s disconcerting.

â??I want to put an addition on my house,â? she says, folding her hands in the lap of her khaki slacks. Her nails are long acrylics, the red polish sloppily applied, and her voice is deep. Very deep, with a bit of a rasp to it. She looks around my office as if searching for something. She seems uneasy.

â??Well, tell me about your house,â? I say. â??Where is it?â? Itâ??s weird, speaking to my own misshapen reflection in her glasses.

â??Not far from here,â? she says. â??Itâ??s a boxy nineteen-sixties house. Too dark. I want to add a sunroom.â?

I picture the house, old and airless. I can imagine the way it smells and the tight feeling of the walls as you pass from room to room. It probably cries out for a sunroom and Iâ??ve designed plenty of them, but Iâ??m not sure Iâ??m the right architect for this project. Bader and Duke Design hired Jackson and me specifically to bring a more contemporary element to the decades-old North Carolina firm. Ann Smithâ??s house sounds like it needs a cozier aesthetic.

â??Do you have any pictures of your home?â? I ask.

She doesnâ??t answer. Instead, she stares at me. Or at least, I guess, sheâ??s staring. Who knows what her eyes are doing behind those glasses? I feel suddenly uncomfortable, as though the power in the room has shifted from me to her.

â??No pictures with me,â? she says finally. â??I lost my husband and now the house seems . . . oppressive.â? She leans forward a few inches. â??You know how that feels, donâ??t you? Losing your husband?â?

A shiver runs up my spine. How does she know about Jackson? How does she know anything about me? Natalie must have mentioned something to her while she was waiting. â??Yes, I do understand what thatâ??s like,â? I say slowly. â??Iâ??m so sorry about your loss. But back to your house. How would you like to use the sunroom? For entertaining orâ??â?

â??Mine had a heart attack,â? she says. â??He was seventy, which probably seems old to you, but it isnâ??t really. Youâ??re what? Thirty, maybe? Youâ??ll be seventy in the blink of an eye. Your husband, though. He was way too young, wasnâ??t he?â? Her dark eyebrows suddenly pop above the sunglasses in a question. â??And to die like he did, falling off the staircase while he was building your new house. Just a shame.â?

How does she know all this? Any mention of Jackson can throw me off these days, and coming from this odd woman . . . I donâ??t want her to know anything about me. Iâ??ll have to have a serious talk with Natalie. â??Well.â? I try to get my footing again. â??Youâ??re right. Itâ??s been difficult. But Iâ??d really like us to focus on your project. Tell me what youâ??â?

â??How can you move into the house that took him from you?â? She asks the question Iâ??ve been wondering myself. â??No one shouldâ??ve put a house there to begin with. All those new houses. They donâ??t belong. But especially that one. Yours. So modern. And stuck back in the trees like it is.â?

My palms are sticky on the arms of my chair. At this very moment, we are in an office in Greenville, nearly thirty miles from the Shadow Ridge neighborhood in the outskirts of Round Hill, where my beautiful, newly completed house is waiting for Rainie and me to move into it. How can she know about the house? About my life? What does any of it have to do with her? â??How do you know so much about me and what does it have to do with your project?â? I ask.

â??Shadow Ridge Estates,â? the woman continues, that deep voice of hers mocking. â??Who came up with that pretentious name? All those trees suck the breath out of you. You donâ??t really want to move in there, do you? Itâ??s no place for a child. No place for a little girl. Especially one who just lost her daddy.â?

Oh my God. She knows about Rainie. I donâ??t know how to handle this. Sheâ??s touching me in my softest, most wounded places and I canâ??t think straight.

I have to get myself under control. I sit up straight, ready to turn the tables on her.

â??Would you mind taking your glasses off?â? I ask.

â??Yes, Iâ??d mind,â? she says. â??Light bothers me.â? She raises a hand to touch the edge of her glasses, and the loose sleeve of her white blouse slips a few inches up her arm, exposing a pink line across her forearm. Had she tried to kill herself at one time? But I donâ??t think thatâ??s it. The line is short and rounded. It looks more like a birthmark than a scar.

â??I think youâ??d better go to another firm,â? I say, getting to my feet. â??I only do contemporary design.â?

She looks toward the ceiling as if considering the suggestion, then back at me. â??If you say so, yes. I guess Iâ??d better.â? She picks up her purse and stands suddenly, and I step back, afraid of her. Afraid of an old woman. I want her out of my office. I move toward the door, but she swiftly steps forward to block my path. â??Do you want to know what keeps me awake at night?â? she asks.

â??Iâ??d like you to leave,â? I say. Sheâ??s too close to me now, so close that I can see the fear in my eyes in the distorted reflection in her sunglasses.

â??Thinking,â? she says. â??Thatâ??s what keeps me awake. Thinking about killing someone.â?

I push my way past her. Open the door and stand aside. â??Leave.â? My voice sounds firm. At least I hope it does. But Ann Smith doesnâ??t budge.

â??Iâ??ve been thinking about it for a long, long time,â? she continues. â??Years and years and years. And now I have the chance.â?

My heart thuds against my rib cage. Is she talking about me? Am I the someone? Years and years and years. It canâ??t be me. Still, I glance around the room for a weapon, spotting nothing. I think of my three-year-old daughter. Leaving her an orphan.

â??Who are you talking about?â? I ask, distressed by the quaking of my voice.

â??I donâ??t think I want to tell you.â? She smiles the smile of someone who has all the power. Then she pivots and walks to the doorway. I say nothing as she leaves the room and I watch her move down the hallway with the ease of a younger woman. Shutting the door, I stand frozen for a full minute before my brain kicks in and I rush to the window. I look out at the tiny parking lot we reserve for clients and contractors, watching for Ann Smith, hoping to see what car she gets into. But she never appears and I stand there numbly, the specter of her presence still looming behind me. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1) The novel alternates between Ellie’s perspective in 1965 and Kayla’s perspective in
2010. How did the alternating time lines and voices impact your reading experience?
Was there one perspective that you connected with more than the other?

2) In chapter 2, Ellie says “There are moments in life when you suddenly see your future
and it’s not at all what you expected.” That statement resonates with the rest of Ellie’s
life. Can you describe a situation where this statement resonated with you?

3) The Last House on the Street touches upon several national current events in each
time line, for example: LBJ passing the Voting Rights Act in the 1965 time line and
the presidency of Barack Obama in 2010. How did reflecting upon the events in each
time line influence your reading experience?

4) Kayla and Ellie both suffer the loss of the man they love. How does this impact each
of them? How does this influence the relationship they’re able to create?

5) For both characters, their house represents their grief. For Ellie, her house is a
reminder of her tragic loss and familial betrayal. For Kayla, her house is a constant
reminder of the loss of her husband and the life they could have shared there. What is
the significance of what happens to each house at the end of the novel? What does it
mean for the future of both characters?

6) What significance does the Hockley house have in the town of Round Hill? What
does it represent in each time line?

7) What significance does Kayla’s house and all of the Shadow Ridge development
mean to the town of Round Hill?

8) How did you feel after you learned of Brenda and Miss Pat’s involvement in
Winston’s death? How do you imagine Ellie felt?

9) What role does guilt play in the narrative? Who do you believe feels the most guilt?
10) In chapter 21, Kayla finds a letter that her father, Reed, wrote to Jackson, describing
their new house as “haunted.” Discuss what that means in the context of this story.
What is the house haunted by, if not supernatural beings?

11) In what ways does the society that the characters were born into impact who they
become? In what ways does it not impact them? For example, both Brenda and Ellie
were raised in the same society, but had very different values and, consequently, led
very different lives. Why do you think Brenda and Ellie had such different views on
race? What is the importance of society and “fitting in” for the characters in the 1965
time line? How does it influence the plot?

12) What is the impact of Winston and Ellie falling in love despite Winston’s statement
that he never “planned on falling in love with a white girl” in chapter 42? How would
the story be different if they were just friends?

13) Discuss the effect of bias in the SCOPE program. For example, Reverend Filburn and
the Northern students did not initially welcome Ellie because she was from the South,
and the people in Round Hill opposed the SCOPE program because “Yankee”
outsiders were coming in to “tell us how we should be runnin’ things,” as Buddy says
in chapter 6.

14) Ellie frequently leads her fellow SCOPE volunteers and supporters in song during
protests. Winston also sings a few verses from “I’ll Fly Away” to Ellie on the first
night they meet in the tree house on page 277. What is the role of music for the civil
rights activists?

15) At the end, in chapter 52, Ellie admits that she and Reed may have ended up together
in another lifetime. What do you think is the meaning behind this statement? Do you
believe this could have been true? Why or why not?

16) Discuss the definition of “family” in the novel. What are the expectations of family,
and where do the lines blur between blood relatives and people who simply fulfill
familial roles? Which is more important to the Hockley family?

17) “Loneliness felt like a disease with no cure,” Ellie says in chapter 40. Which
characters do you think are most impacted by loneliness? Is Ellie lonely in
California? Is Brenda lonely in Round Hill despite being surrounded by the people
she grew up with? Has this statement ever rung true in your life?

18) How does the idea of marriage play into Ellie’s idea to wait until marriage to “be
intimate” with a man? Were you surprised when she and Winston did so in the tree
house? What is the significance of that decision?

19) With the recent Black Lives Matter protests and other similar movements in the news
in the United States, how does this book contribute to the conversation about racial

20) How do the idea and perception of protest differ in 1965 to the present day?

From the author

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Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Tami C. (see profile) 05/02/22

  "The last house on the street "by renee f. (see profile) 03/24/22

Interesting, but an old story line.

  "I foundit more effective as a book about civil rights than as a mystery!"by Gail R. (see profile) 02/26/22

The Last House on the Street, Diane Chamberlain, author; Susan Bennett, narrator.
Diane Chamberlain has merged two disparate threads of a story together, perfectly. It is read with perfect
... (read more)

by Kelli N. (see profile) 02/23/22

  "Great reading for historical fiction fans"by Elizabeth P. (see profile) 01/11/22

We move back and forth from 1965 to 2010 America.

1965: We learn about the SCOPE (Summer Community Organization and Political Education) program and meet Ellie who leaves to help with g

... (read more)

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