Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Lace Reader

Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader is one of those popular word-of-mouth-novels-with-a-corporate-Cinderella-spin that I really want to like. The indie bookstore owner was enthusiastic. “You’ll love this book! It’s perfect summer reading. The author originally self-published it, then was discovered, and then the book was auctioned in a bidding war and became a best-seller. ” She smiled at me nervously. She wasn’t quite sure of her customer: you could see that. She knew me on the basis of my buying a pretty strange bouquet of books even for me, which included The Arabian Nights, The Volcano Lover, a Robert Barnard mystery, and something with a pretty cover called The Snow Fox.

“Oh, add it to the stack,” I said airily. “I certainly can support a book that one-upped the corporate world.”

And I can. Let’s call this Support Women’s Book Group Month.

The Lace Reader is a fast-paced novel of the kind one can devour as fast as a chocolate bar. Set in witch-haunted Salem, Mass., it’s very plot-oriented and atmospheric, part mystery, part magical, part Salem travel guide, part social issue novel. The sassy, witty narrator, 32-year-old Towner Whitney, returns to Salem from L.A. when her Great-Aunt Eva, a psychic who runs a ladies’ tea room and teaches children’s etiquette classes, disappears. A self-proclaimed crazy person who is psychic as well as sometimes psychotic, Towner left the dysfunctional family to avoid eccentricities like "lace-reading," a fortunetelling gift shared by the Whitney women: Aunt Eva sees pictures in the lace, and so can the other women in the family if they try. But Towner, who was hospitalized for depression after her twin sister, Lyndley, committed suicide 17 years before, has bad associations with the lace. She has had her share of hallucinations and carries an expired anti-psychotic pill as a mental health charm. Her brother convinces her to come home to their dysfunctional family in Salem.

The narrator’s staccato voice is fun and eccentric.

“...anyone would admit that it is the women of the Whitney family who have taken quirky to a new level of achievement. My mother, May, for example, is a walking contradiction in terms. A dedicated recluse who (with the exception of her arrests) hasn’t left her home on Yellow Dog Island for the better part of twenty years, May has nevertheless managed to revive a long-defunct lace-making industry and to make herself famous in the press. She has gained considerable notoriety for rescuing abused women and children and turning their lives around, giving the women a place in her lace-making business and home-educating their children. All this from a raging agoraphobic who gave one of her own children to her barren half sister, Emma, in a fit of generosity because, as she said at the time, there was a need, and besides, she had been blessed with a matching set.”

Towner, too, is very conscious of abuse: her violent uncle beat Aunt Emma so badly she has brain damage, and he drove Towner’s twin to what looked like suicide (perhaps it’s murder: I haven’t finished the book yet).

And parts of the novel are narrated in the 3rd person by an attractive cop who was a friend of Aunt Eva and is investigating her death.

The novel is enjoyable, if a bit choppy. It’s never saccharine, because of Towner’s mordant, funny voice and point of view. Sometimes it’s comical, other times eerie. I don’t know where it’s going.

As so often happens, I read two-thirds of a contemporary novel and then discover I have nothing in common with it.

It doesn't mean it's not good in its way, though. And I sincerely wish Barry a lot of luck.


Danielle said...

I've had this one for a while, but haven't had a chance to read it. Maybe I'll actually get to it this summer. I've heard it's good--but I know what you mean by a novel not really fulfilling it's pomise (which sort of sounds like what happened with you). Still, I'll give it a try.

Mad Housewife said...

It's a very light book, and I certainly liked the characters. But you're right: it didn't quite fulfill its promise. I wish I liked it as much as others did. But I'm still fascinated by the thought that she self-published and then was discovered.