Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry

Book Description:
Look into the lace... When the eyes begin to fill with tears and the patience is long exhausted, there will appear a glimpse of something not quite seen... In this moment, an image will begin to form... in the space between what is real and what is only imagined. Can you read your future in a piece of lace? All of the Whitney women can. But the last time Towner read, it killed her sister and nearly robbed Towner of her own sanity. Vowing never to read lace again, her resolve is tested when faced with the mysterious, unsolvable disappearance of her beloved Great Aunt Eva, Salem's original Lace Reader. Told from opposing and often unreliable perspectives, the story engages the reader's own beliefs. Should we listen to Towner, who may be losing her mind for the second time? Or should we believe John Rafferty, a no nonsense New York detective, who ran away from the city to a simpler place only to find himself inextricably involved in a psychic tug of war with all three generations of Whitney women? Does either have the whole story? Or does the truth lie somewhere in the swirling pattern of the lace?

A good story, thoughtful and well paced, as intricate as the lace is front and center in the book. On the surface it seems simple enough, a mystery of what happens to a woman who is lost, but just when you think you know what is going on in the story, the twisty ending gets you and you find nothing is as it seems. I found it enjoyable to read (in a day, hard to put down). The tales of colonial Salem and it's witch hunts parallel this modern day plotline. In addition, there is the general feeling of ghosts and an otherwordliness plus the themes of family secrets, incest and of the unusual bonds between twins (like The Thirteenth Tale, reviewed previously).

Towner Whitney is the main character, having just had a hysterectomy she is summoned to return home from California, where she has lived for the past 15 years. Her beloved great-aunt Eva has disappeared. We meet the various members of the Whitney family, and learn about how quirky they are, considered by many in Salem to be modern-day witches, though really they are more like "seers" who can tell the future by reading lace. The beginning of each chapter in the book recounts a lesson on lace reading.

Her mother, Mae, lives on a small island near Salem, called Yellow Dog Island (it is overrun by semi-wild Golden Retrievers, of all things - owning one myself, it had to make me smile.) She runs a refuge for battered women and instructs them on how to weave lace which helps with their recovery. By rescuing them, her set up is likened to The Underground Railroad by helping them get away from their former lives, not unlike the way runaway slaves were aided in the 19th century. Towner has grown up on this island most of her life with her sister, Lindley. We learn that Lindley killed herself as a teenager and Towner has many secrets and inner demons trying to cope with her death. She's had a long hard struggle, mentally, to overcome survivor guilt and now must return to Salem and have all those old memories dredged up again.

This was a fascinating read, not only does the setting make you want to go to Salem (if you haven't already) but it is evocative of the New England location, you can easily picture yourself out on the water in the Whaler going back and forth to the Island, or in Aunt Eva's grand house, the setting of her teas and lace readings. Another unique setting is the shop of local resident witch, Ann Chase. Her shop is where she sells herbs and oils and tells fortunes. All the characters are interesting in and of themselves and have their own little histories or crosses to carry. But of all them, Towner has the hardest time of it. She becomes friends with Detective Rafferty who is trying to solve the case of what happened to Eva, and another runaway girl, Angela, who has gotten herself mixed up and pregnant with the local cult that call themselves Calvinists. Coincidentally, the sect is lead by Towner's brutal and horrifying uncle Cal, (Lyndley's father). Cal was married to Towner's aunt Emma, whom he brutalized and beat up repeatedly, until finally blinding her. Now mentally incapable of taking care of herself, she lives with Mae on the Island in in her own world of peace and quiet, never to be able to read lace again - if she ever could.

Still with me here?

Everything expertly comes together by the end, with a heart pounding escape and the opening and healing of old wounds and a satisfying ending, though completely unexpected - at least to me. I must admit, I was confused and had to really re-think things after I finished it. I'm not exactly sure about a few things, one being, "who jumped off the cliff?" I think I know, but I'm not positive. A lot is left up to the reader to figure it out once you know the truth behind the story.

Overall, this was really interesting and a good read, and worth a re-read for me just to get it all straight for my own peace of mind *grin* Completely original to me and a great first effort by this author. I'll be interested in reading what else she writes in the future.


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