Reviewed by Ron Charles
Washington Post Book World
Brunonia Barry's first novel is a compendium of women's issues stitched into a murder mystery in modern-day Salem, Mass. Originally self-published, The Lace Reader later became the subject of a multi-million-dollar bidding war among New York publishers. Now it's being re-released as the first installment of a planned trilogy with a printing of 200,000 copies and all the marketing tie-in gimmicks of a new deodorant, including a sweepstakes, a "pitch kit" with a walking tour map of Salem, and something the publisher ominously describes as an "early widget disseminated online in a viral consumer campaign."
Beneath all this hype is a moderately entertaining story of three generations in a setting rich with Wiccan wisdom and deadly misogyny. One of the pleasures that runs through The Lace Reader is Barry's witty depiction of Salem. If you haven't been there, it's hard to imagine how completely the town's beauty is upstaged by the crassness of businesses that celebrate and profit from the murder of accused witches in the late 17th century. Barry has a kinder take on her hometown than I do, but she captures the way it remains suspended between past and present, tragedy and kitsch.
The narrator, an endearing woman with a self-deprecating sense of humor, introduces herself as Towner Whitney. Keep her first instruction in mind throughout: "Never believe me," she says. "I lie all the time. I am a crazy woman." I won't spoil this slow, complicated plot except to say that it's heavily back-loaded with revelations that change everything.
Her family, the Whitneys, come from old New England stock. The men made their fortunes in shipping and shoes and then faded away. But the women remain, and they "have taken quirky to a new level of achievement." Just off the coast, Towner's notorious mother maintains a shelter for abused women on a tiny, inaccessible island inhabited by wild dogs. Living without electricity or running water, she and her young women grow flax for their lace, which attracts female customers across the country.
Meanwhile, Towner's Great-Aunt Eva is an old-school Transcendentalist who owns a ladies' tearoom and conducts etiquette classes for wealthy Boston children. "But what Eva will be remembered for," Towner tells us, "is her uncanny ability to read lace. People come from all over the world to be read by Eva, and she can tell your past, present, and future pretty accurately just by holding the lace in front of you and squinting her eyes." This clairvoyant practice, which serves as the heart of the novel, is entirely Barry's invention, but it's so evocative and ingenious that I'm sure lace-reading charlatans are already setting up shop somewhere.
The story opens as Towner is recovering from a hysterectomy in California and receives word that her beloved Great-Aunt Eva has disappeared while swimming in the Salem harbor. No other calamity could draw Towner back home, which she fled years earlier when she was so mentally unbalanced that she had to be hospitalized. But she screws up her courage and flies back, hoping to discover her aunt's whereabouts. What she finds instead is Eva's friendly ghost, her mother just as quarrelsome as ever and a scary cult leader named Cal, who rules over a violent band of anti-female followers called, of course, Calvinists.
Was Towner's aunt a victim of foul play? Can Towner reconcile with her strange mother? Why is Cal so hell-bent on driving Towner out of Salem again?
From the threads of these mysteries, Barry spins a tale of magic, sexual abuse and family reconciliation. But this book isn't so much lacework as a crazy quilt of patched plot lines and literary styles: Episodes of romantic comedy suddenly give way to gothic excess or white-knuckle suspense, only to fade into long stretches of rumination, a weird amalgamation of The Friday Night Knitting Club and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." And through it all, its feminist themes sound 1970s fresh: "They came to get you because you were a woman alone in the world," Barry writes, "or because you were different, because your hair was red, or because you had no children of your own and no husband to protect you. Or maybe even because you owned property that one of them wanted." (For a more sophisticated and chilling novel of misogynist repression, read Maggie O'Farrell's recent The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.)
Much of the first 100 pages seems fuzzy as Barry sets up Towner's story while obfuscating and disguising details -- the better to shock us at the end. It's difficult to get a fix on the family relationships among these characters because, as Towner warns, her memory has been scrambled by shock therapy. You can look for clues in the epigraphs that begin each chapter -- pithy quotations from The Lace Reader's Guide, written by Great-Aunt Eva as an instruction manual for other fabric psychics: "No two Readers will ever see the same images in the lace," she advises. "What is seen is determined entirely by perspective." If you're the kind of person who copies such sayings on index cards and sticks them on your refrigerator, you'll love these little ornaments, but if you're the kind of person who mocks those people, you may want to peer into the lace and see yourself reading a different novel.
The best part of the book comes halfway through when we begin reading a journal that Towner wrote back in 1981 "as some kind of therapy" after the mysterious and traumatic events that sent her running from home. It makes for a gripping section, full of dark melodrama: wind-swept cliffs, a moonlit suicide, a violent demon stalking young girls. I'm sorry it takes so long to reach this part, and I was sorrier to see it end, but it generates enough heat to propel the novel toward its revelatory finale, complete with a mob wielding torches.
Having untangled so many false leads and sewn up the great mystery at the heart of Towner's trauma (it's a doozy), Barry would seem to have left herself little material for the next two installments, but I wonder if those future volumes, unburdened of all this exposition, won't actually be more effective. She's created a marvelously bizarre cast of characters (living and dead) in a uniquely colorful town, and there are enough riveting sections here to illustrate what she can do when she lets loose, grabs her broom and flies.
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.
Books mentioned in this post