“The Lace Reader” by Brunonia Barry is tale of twins and magic, set in the unsettling town of Salem, Massachusetts, and told by a self-confessed unreliable narrator. The book, which holds a lot of promise in the beginning, sadly wanders off course. The story is recounted in part by the first person narrative of Towner Whitney, a twin and daughter in Salem’s infamous Whitney family, known for its eccentric and magical women. Towner has returned to Salem after having been gone a long time after an alluded to crisis which temporarily landed her in a mental hospital. Upon the mysterious death of her beloved aunt, a woman who could read the future in lace, she reluctantly returns to the house on the edge of the sea where her past still haunts her. The story slowly unravels of Towner’s relationship with her twin sister, who took her own life one summer. It is a story of a love triangle, a story of spouse abuse, a story of incest, a story of mental illness, parental love, religious intolerance… That is the problem. Too many stories. Barry had a great idea and tells a good story, but she has made it unnecessarily complex and entwined too much. On the plus side of the ledger, the atmosphere of Salem and the island the Whitney family inhabits is beautifully drawn, capturing a New England sailing culture, steeped in the old trader culture and dark history of the witch trials. I would go so far as to say the town itself is one of the strongest characters in the story. Barry also has a good voice. She uses quick, sharp sentences and keeps the pace moving, even though at times I found the situations unrealistic. Another potential problem is Barry’s handling of the multiple narrators and the shifting of time all over about a twenty year period. Overall, a solid book, and was a great read for this Halloween time of year.
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Suzanne Berne’s “The Ghost at the Table” was described as “a crash course in sibling rivalry.” It is the tale told by younger sister Cynthia, a single writer, who is invited to spend Thanksgiving with her perfect sister, Frances, in her lovingly-restored New England home, along with Frances’s husband and two grown daughters. Already tense family interactions are strained to the breaking point when Frances springs a surprise on Cynthia: the fact that she has also invited their estranged father. The story is told through the eyes of Cynthia, who relates past family dramas to include her suspicions that her father, possibly aided by her sister Frances, had a hand in killing their bedridden and ailing mother. The first part of the book reads more like a mystery, as we try to piece together the past, provided only in glimpses, through Cynthia’s recollections, juxtaposed with family concerns going on in the house in the present, as the family prepares for the holiday. And there is no shortage of family dysfunction in the past or present, as marital infidelity, alcoholism, “cutting”, eating disorders, and a host of other mental illnesses are hinted at or observed by Cynthia. But then, the story seems to turn on its reader, and we start to doubt Cynthia’s reliability as a narrator– her ability to discern the truth of what she sees, and how she has interpreted the past. I personally enjoy the “unreliable narrator” technique, and this shift would have been compelling if masterfully played out, but instead, I felt cheated as a reader and a little bit angry with author Berne. So many threads of the narrative were never resolved or even re-visited to attempt to provide a solution. They were just dropped. What are we to believe, that Cynthia was totally unreliable in all her experiences? And even so, she would have gone over them in her own mind to try to resolve them. Suzanne Berne is talented writer who is able to paint a picture of domestic life so realistic the reader feels they are in the room, at the table, observing the drama unfold. She has created compelling and interesting characters, set them in motion around a complex and compelling plot (the possible murder of the mother), and then leaves us hanging in the end. Maybe I have just read too many mysteries lately and need the closure, but I get the sense that Berne had no idea how to end the novel, and it feels as if she just stopped writing when there was so much more to tell.