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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Book Review: The Lace Reader

The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry

The Lace Reader, recently released in paperback, was originally self published but caught the eye of the big publishing houses due to glowing reviews in key places. HarperCollins won the subsequent bidding war with a multi-million dollar deal. Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and dreams do come true!

The Lace Reader is told mostly from Towner Whitney’s viewpoint. Towner has come back to her hometown of Salem, Massachusetts because her Aunt Eva, who can read a person’s future from Ipswich lace, has gone missing. Towner left Salem when she was seventeen (around when her twin sister Lyndley died.) This is her first time back after fifteen years. Towner has struggled with mental illness and a troubled past and is recovering from recent surgery. Towner stays at aunt Eva’s and believes there must be a mistake since Eva is there, has even spoken with her.

Shortly, aunt Eva’s body is discovered and her drowning seems very suspicious.  Towner realizes her Aunt's ghost is staying at the house and communicates with her.  Before long another death occurs and it is clear something is wrong in little old Salem. The atmosphere of re-enactments of the old Salem witch trials is the backdrop while a modern Calvinist preacher of a cult-like following is stirring up negative sentiment towards Towner and her newly deceased aunt. Towner’s mother, May, lives on Yellow Dog Island where she runs a battered women’s shelter. Towner’s past is slowly revealed as Salem’s past and present are finely drawn.

The main character never makes any bones about herself. Early on Towner tells the reader "Never believe me. I lie all the time. I am a crazy woman…. That last part is true." From there you are on a journey through Towner’s eyes and memories. Towner grows on the reader easily. It is deceptively slow starting out, but valuable information is building up – much like a classic Christie mystery. If you are like me, once you have finished the story you will go back and review key parts.

The characters are well done. May is a hard and eccentric woman living on the isolated island where wild dogs roam. The woman’s shelter she runs does play into the overall plot. The policeman investigating becomes entangled with Towner and her family. His character seems a bit stiff at times or perhaps that distinguishes him as a reserved man. The old flame from Towner’s traumatic teens even enters the picture.  This short quote is an example of the familar, even chatty writing style while giving a glimpse at Towner's mother.

You’ve probably heard of my mother, May Whitney. Everyone else has. I’m sure you remember the UPI picture a few years back, the one with May leveling a six-gauge at about twenty cops who had come to her women’s shelter on Yellow Dog Island with a warrant to take back one of her girls. That picture was everywhere. It was even on the cover of Newsweek. What made the photo so compelling was that my mother looked uncannily like Maureen O’Hara in some fifties western. Cowering behind May in the photo was a terrified-looking girl who couldn’t have been more than twenty-two, with a large white bandage on her neck, rescued from a husband who’d gotten drunk and tried to slit her throat. Her two little children sat behind playing with a litter of golden retriever puppies. It was quite a scene. If you saw it, you’d remember.
The writing style does shift from chatty to a more flowing prose. This shifting may not appeal to every reader and even be distracting to some.   Following is an example of the prose that Ms Barry has crafted like a fine wine.

Old houses catch threads of the people who have lived in them in the same way that a piece of lace does. For the most part, those threads stay quietly in place until someone disturbs them. An old cleaning woman reaching for cobwebs reveals the dreamy dance of a girl home from a first cotillion. Dance card still dangling from her wrist, the girl closes her eyes and twirls, trying to hold the moment, the memory of first love. The old cleaning woman knows the vision better than the girl herself does. It’s the one she has longed for but never lived.

In the web of threads, it is possible for the two worlds to come together. For the girl who lived it, grown now, all but the feeling is forgotten. She cannot recall the name of the young man. Her memories hold other things, things more important to her, finally; the man she married, the birth of a child.

But for the cleaning lady, the thread is stronger. It is part vision, part the fulfillment of a wish long gone but never forgotten. She find herself breathless and has to sit for a minute on the girl’s bed. Eva’s bed.

The place where the treads connect has tied the two women together. The cleaning woman has no way of knowing that the young girl was Eva, now middle-aged. The woman is not from here. She did not know Eva as a girl. But even without this knowledge, something has changed between them. When the cleaning woman finishes and comes down the stairs, for the first time ever, Eva offers her a cup of tea. The old woman doesn’t take it, of course; it wouldn’t be proper, and even if it were, she is a shy woman and not given to conversation. It would be uncomfortable, if not impossible, to change their relationship this late in their lives. Still, something has changed, and they both know it.

This is an atmospheric tale, as you read - it creeps up and seeps into you, takes hold of you. Before long you are thinking about the book when you aren’t reading it, at work or at the dinner table. Similar to a Hitchcock film, the tension is built up for the climatic revealing clincher. The ending had me on the edge of my seat and completely took me by surprise, not often done. Yes, the story is finely crafted and told that well.

The author’s strong point in my opinion is the ability to weave a story that had all the clues presented to the reader without the reader seeing it. I believe I may have even spoke aloud “No way!” when I reached the great reveal. Once you arrive at the surprise twist, you start remembering all those clues and realize how they fit together. The author also created several vibrant scenes that are so real and memorable they will live on in the reader’s memory. That is a feat.

This book will make you laugh and possibly even cry. It takes you on an emotional journey that you don’t even realize you are on until the end. And the end is a roller coaster ride.  I recommend this book if you like the mystery or fiction in general. It is an experience not to be missed.

For your convenience, you may purchase a copy here

Until next Monday when I will have a new "Musings", I wish you many mysterious moments.

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