The Only One Left Is a Gripping, Gothic Page-Turner

Books Reviews Riley Sager
The Only One Left Is a Gripping, Gothic Page-Turner

Riley Sager’s thrillers have a knack for keeping you reading, whether he’s indulging in the inner darkness of a point-of-view character or propelling you along through reveal after reveal in a twist-laden odyssey of gleeful horror. But there’s more to his books than all-out propulsion. Yes, Sager’s novels move like there’s rocket fuel baked into the pages, but he also has a gift for building layers of emotional reality into even his most shocking plots, ensuring that even when you’re not reading his characters’ latest ordeals, you’re thinking about them. The Only One Left, Sager’s latest thriller, is a prime example of his talent for blending the juicy and the thrilling with the deeply emotional.  Full of breakneck turns and pacing that will leave you dizzy, it’s also a satisfyingly Gothic descent into the lives of two women who are trapped by perception, circumstance, and guilt, all while surrounded by a crumbling, suitably spooky old mansion.  

With echoes of the Lizzie Borden trial, Sager’s novel begins with the story of the Hope family murders, a 1920s scandal in which almost every member of the wealthy clan was brutally slaughtered in the seaside mansion. All except one: Lenora Hope, who escaped conviction for the slayings and is now one of New England’s most infamous, and most reclusive, women. 

It’s with this sense of lingering infamy in mind that Sager’s narrative picks up in the 1980s, as caregiver Kit McDeere heads to the Hope family mansion with a job offer to move in and become an aging Lenora’s full-time home health aid. 

It’s not a job Kit actually relishes, particularly when she meets the stuffy housekeeper and realizes the mansion is slowly tipping into the sea thanks to years of erosion and neglect. But it is a job she needs, thanks to a darkness in her own past that left her falsely accused and carrying a constant burden of guilt. So she arrives at the mansion, aptly named Hope’s End, to meet this old, possibly murderous, woman who’s confined to a wheelchair and, thanks to a stroke, able to use only her left hand to communicate. Fortunately for Kit, Lenora Hope can still use a typewriter. And she’s ready to tell her story.

Sager’s talent for thriller structure comes to the fore right away, as he instantly begins seeding The Only One Left with ideas, red herrings, and setups that might not pay off for 300 pages, but which the author himself never forgets. The threads of this ever-growing tapestry run quickly and accurately out in all directions, so many that you might momentarily think there’s no way they’ll all weave together in the end. Then Sager’s knack for storytelling takes over, as he uses the dueling perspectives of Kit and Lenora to begin binding all of those threads into something whole, something sleek and dark and luxurious, and we the reader instantly feel like we’re in safe hands. 

But as I’ve said already, Sager’s fiction works well beyond his knack for smart, tightly coordinated plotting. In this case, the author throws himself completely and gleefully into the Gothic aesthetic of the story, delivering vivid and evocative descriptions of the seaside mansion with its cracking walls and steadily tilting floors. The deeper you get into the story, the more you realize that the central metaphor of the falling-down house, one everyone from Poe to T. Kingfisher has embraced over the centuries, is about more than the story of a crumbling family, or even the story of a woman trapped in a gilded cage. The darker tendencies of the story, like all great Gothic fiction, extend into the psyches of the characters themselves, most prominently Kit, who gets the largest share of point-of-view in the novel and whose own state of mind steadily decays as she finds herself increasingly ensnared in the mansion’s web of secrets. It’s a deft exploration of Gothic horror, with dashes of romance and melodrama thrown in along the way, and it proves the depth of Sager’s talent. 

That sense of depth, combined with Sager’s intense plotting, means that the only thing that flies by faster than the first 200 pages of this novel are the final 100. By the concluding act of The Only One Left, you’ll be hunched over the book like a reader possessed, determined to unearth all of Sager’s secrets, and you’ll have a great time doing it, no matter how much sleep you lose.

The Only One Left is available now wherever books are sold. 

Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.

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