Written by Brunonia Barry
Published by William Morrow
This review refers to an advance edition of the book.
These opening lines from Brunonia Barry’s debut novel, The Lace Reader, perfectly set the tone for the rest of the work. Nothing in the book is what it seems at first view – events and people constantly shift and turn and realign themselves, as the reader is drawn ever more deeply into the world of Towner Whitney.
The Lace Reader is an ingeniously plotted tale, nearly impossible to review without giving away too many details. Which would be a horrible thing to do because this a terrific read. The story twists and changes on almost every page. The ending is a stunning roller coaster ride that made me want to turn back to the beginning and read the whole thing over again. And the characters are so life-like and well-drawn, by the end of the book I was almost beginning (somewhat disturbingly) to compare them with members of my own family.
The book’s central character, Towner Whitney, is an emotionally damaged young woman in her thirties who is living in California – a self-exile from her home in Salem, Massachusetts, and her eccentric, troubled family. She’s recovering from recent surgery when she’s called home to Salem after the family matriarch, her beloved 85-year-old Great Aunt Eva, is reported missing. Towner returns home reluctantly, having left under traumatic circumstances fifteen years earlier. The search for Eva brings Towner back to Salem physically and also stirs up memories of past events and relationships – memories she’s been holding at bay for many years.
The women in Towner Whitney’s family have a unique gift – they’re able to “read lace.” Specifically Ipswich lace, the lace made by the women of Ipswich, Massachusetts, in the 1700s. And Towner’s Great Aunt Eva, who runs a ladies’ tearoom and holds etiquette classes for the “wealthy children of Boston’s North Shore,” is the most famous of the lace readers – she can “read” a person’s past, present and future “just by holding the lace in front of you and squinting her eyes.”
Towner’s mother May Whitney is also able to read lace, although over the years she has come to believe “that knowing what is in people’s minds or their futures is not always in anyone’s best interest.” On her small island retreat, a few miles beyond Salem’s harbor, May runs a shelter for abused women and children, and teaches the women to make lace. The relationship between mother and daughter has always been troubled, and May’s refusal to leave her island home makes Towner’s return to Salem necessary and even more troublesome.
As backdrop to the main story, Barry provides us with quite a lot of “atmosphere” material concerning the town of Salem and its history – known primarily for the infamous witch trials. But Salem was also an early center of this country’s shipping trade, and therefore a very prosperous place in the 18th and early 19th centuries. With Towner’s return, we get glimpses of the present city as well as flashbacks to Salem in the 1970s. And, of course, the Salem witches are a presence throughout the book – not just the unfortunate victims of the witch hunts of old, but modern “witches,” as well: the followers of the Wiccan religion.
Over and over again, I was impressed with Barry’s sure hand with detail. For instance, I loved the description of Eva’s labels for the tomatoes and eggplants in her garden – “TOM and EGG respectively, as if they were little people.” Or the way Detective Rafferty runs his cup under hot water before pouring in the coffee. And the book includes one of the best descriptions of the onset of a migraine that I’ve ever found in a novel.
In reading The Lace Reader, I did something I hardly ever do – that is, take a chance on a book I knew almost nothing about. Generally, I do quite a lot of research and review-reading before adding a book to my want-to-read list. In this case, I’m very glad I broke my pattern. The book is an exploration of many themes, including love and abandonment, truth and illusion; itself as intricate as a piece of lace – part psychological drama, part police procedural, part family saga. All very adroitly and skillfully handled by a terrific new author. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I have a feeling Brunonia Barry isn’t going to be an unknown novelist for very long. I’m already eagerly awaiting her next book!
Just one last thought. I usually try to restrict this sort of thing to mental exercise. But I have to say it. This book would make a wonderful movie – it would provide some really terrific roles for “mature” actresses. I’d love to see Marian Seldes as Eva. But if Meryl Streep or Anjelica Huston or Blythe Danner doesn’t buy up the film rights immediately, they’re missing a bet!
I received this book as part of LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I believe it’s scheduled for general release in July 2008.