Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Co-review: The Lace Reader

What first comes to mind when you think of Salem, Massachusetts? Witches, of course! Brunonia Barry's The Lace Reader incorporates Salem's rich history into a riveting story as intricate and complicated as the handmade Ipswich lace that serves as its running motif. But don't think this is merely an ode to textiles. It's a tale of mystery, fresh starts, religious fanaticism, and the horrific (without being too graphic) effects of abuse.

Now, as with all co-reviews, we will discuss the book openly. (And we invite open discussion as well -- hence the calendar on the sidebar to give you time to read with us.) If you haven't read it yet, keep in mind that reading this review will give things away! And trust me, this is one book that shouldn't be spoiled. It includes a major plot twist at the end that will have you thinking about it for days afterward, and I won't be able to sleep at night if I think that I've ruined it for you!


The Lace Reader begins with Towner Whitney returning to her hometown of Salem after the disappearance and death of her great-aunt/mother-figure. Towner hasn't been home in fifteen years since she suffered a breakdown at seventeen after the suicide of her twin sister. Part of her treatment while she was institutionalized included shock treatment, which left her memory permanently damaged. She has issues with just about everyone -- her mother who runs a lace-making shelter for abused women, her former childhood sweetheart who has wasted his life pining over her, and especially her abusive uncle who raised her twin sister, Lyndley. This same uncle, Cal, has set himself up in Salem as the Messianic leader of a religious sect complete with fanatic disciples, cultish exorcisms, and a hatred for the local witches. And yes, there are witches! Mostly they specialize in herbs and incense with the occasional fortune-telling thrown in for tourists, but they provide a fun taste of the paranormal.

Shifting perspectives in the narrative allows us to spend time with Detective Rafferty, a newcomer who knows more about Towner than he lets on and helps her begin the healing process. Things get more complicated when a young member of Cal's cult disappears and Rafferty suspects foul play (she's pregnant with Cal's child). While this mystery plays out on the surface, we also uncover more about the deeper mystery of Towner's mental illness and Lyndley's suicide. Both stories converge toward a climax full of suspense and action, culminating in an unexpected revelation that leaves the reader dazed and marveling at Barry's well-crafted tale.

Caren: All right, before I say anything else about the book I have to apologize for the generous use of the f-word. It was pointless, overused, and distracting, and is the only reason I would hesitate to whole-heartedly recommend this book.

Now, having said that, let's move on to the good stuff. What were your thoughts when it was revealed that the Lyndley in Towner's memory didn't exist -- that in fact, she was Towner herself?

Jenny: I was blown away. I didn't even know there was a twist at the ending of the book, so reading it knocked me for a loop. Then I spent the rest of the day wandering my house aimlessly, wondering what was real and what wasn't. I couldn't even sort out the parts of her memory she made up and which ones were true. Had she been hallucinating most of her life and saw things that weren't there? Or did the shock treatments and abuse over the years fill in places in her memory that made her unstable mental state easier to cope with? Did she develop a split personality that manifested itself as her sister? Is this all left open for the reader to interpret?

The one hint that happened in the book that gave me pause, was when she said something about why she had changed her name from Sophya to Towner. Sophya was too easy to say quietly, in the dark, where no one else could hear it. My radar pinged at that and I started wondering if she had been abused like her sister, Lyndley, but I never thought that she and Lyndley were the same person.

How sad is it that I don't remember any prolific f-words? I think I mentally skip over them and only if they are overwhelming will it bother me. So sad. I need to read more non-fiction or something.

Caren: Well, good, I'm glad they didn't bother you. I always feel bad suggesting a book and then finding out that it has bad language in it.

I had heard that there was a twist ending, so I was trying to see if I could spot it in advance. But she still did an amazing job disguising it because it wasn't obvious and I came up with lots of wild alternatives! One thing that struck me was the excerpt from "The Lace Reader's Guide" that talked about the Guides.
Beware of images that emerge at this place. They are not real. The Guides are tricksters. They will show you their magic and invite you to linger...The Reader must resist the urge to allow the Seeker to rest here, no matter how captivating the images seem, or how true. It is the Lace Reader's job to move the Seeker past the still point to the real truth, which lies not within the veil but just beyond.
Lyndley was the best fit for that description. Her vibrant personality, the mystery surrounding her death; she was easily the most compelling character and the most likely to be a captivating trickster. So once the possibility was introduced that she was not real, I started noticing things like how Towner was the only one who ever talked about her. Even Rafferty talked about her only in relation to Towner's account in the journal, which was described as part fiction.

I have the same questions you have about when Lyndley existed for Towner. Did Towner have a split personality while growing up? Or did Lyndley come into existence only as a coping mechanism after her attempted suicide? She does talk about mentioning Lyndley to other people who all respond badly. But are those actual memories or false ones? I tend towards thinking she was a byproduct of the breakdown and only came into existence in Towner's adult life, but I'd be interested to hear other interpretations. And what exactly triggered the suicide attempt anyway?

I loved how the story followed the motif of the lace. The intricacies of the story reveal little tidbits here and there from alternating perspectives until the whole pattern emerges. Wonderful writing!

Jenny: The lace motif was really interesting. The excerpts from the lace reading book at the beginning of each chapter would hint at what was going to happen next. The whole concept of reading the lace had just enough paranormal flavor to keep things on the edge of reality and had me wondering about some of the story. I think you're right, that Lyndley is one of the trickster Guides and I got caught up in her story, instead of seeing the truth. Gosh, I'd make a cruddy lace reader.

One thing that made me kind of pause is that a man like Rafferty would fall in love with a woman like Towner, knowing exactly what her history was and her mental state. Maybe he's the type of person who wants to save people, which would explain why he's a cop, but to willingly pursue someone with such horrific issues? I loved that he was part of the story and I loved watching them fall for each other, though. It was one of my favorite parts of the story. Towner certainly deserved some happiness, that's for sure.

Caren: Yeah, I liked the quiet, understated romance. But I wondered what he saw in her too. Knowing that he knew her better than the reader did (through his friendship with Eva and his access to police files), I figured that what he knew must not have been serious enough to scare him off. But her issues seemed pretty serious to me! It really makes me wonder about Towner that she would have had such power over both Rafferty and Jack, especially since what we see of her seems to be such a shell.

And speaking of Jack, I really didn't like him and am not sure why Barry made him a part of the story. It bugged me that he was wasting his life moping over a breakup that happened fifteen years ago. Get over her, already! And then to learn that he had raped her during their night together and she doesn't even know it -- ugh, it just made my skin crawl. I'm glad he was properly horrified, but it didn't make him any less despicable to me.

Jenny: I know, seriously, I hated the guy after that. I didn't like him much before, but that sealed the deal for me. Sick. And really, he wasted his life over her? They were kids! I can see how he would mope and cry for maybe a year, but his whole life? The only thing I can think of why he was included in the story is how he described how Towner behaved during the rape, that her eyes glazed over and she shut down, then had no memory of it the next day. That was another clue to her real history instead of the fictional one the we'd been fed all along.

Even though this story was exciting and suspenseful with such a huge twist--which I love--this book had a serious ick factor. Cal was so despicable, so repellent that whenever he'd show up, my skin would crawl. Jack was worthless and disgusting. Thank goodness for characters like Eva, Ann, May and Rafferty. Beezer seemed like the poor normal kid to have gotten sucked into this family. The whole clan of them is a sorry bunch. In my copy of the book from the library, it says that a sequel will be coming out this year. Most of me wants to see what else can possibly happen, but one small portion is tired of the ick. Please let there be less ick.

Caren: Oh really? I hadn't heard about a sequel. I wonder what characters it will follow? I thought the pacing of the book helped to not dwell too much on the horrible stuff. But any book-about-abuse is probably too soon after Iodine! I thought of Iodine quite a bit, actually, and I was glad that The Lace Reader had more closure to it. It still left some things unresolved, but at least she spelled the most important stuff out for us!

I'm glad you brought up Cal. He was seriously scary, but what bothered me even more was how the women he abused would go back to him time and again. Emma, Angela, even Lyndley/Towner if her memory could be trusted. No wonder May hated him so much after seeing him destroy the women she loved. If someone was going to do it, I'm glad she was the one who ultimately shot him!

Jenny: You know, when you put Iodine and The Lace Reader side by side, the The Lace Reader is much less icky. At least Towner didn't want to sleep with Cal. Let's skip abuse books for a little while, what do you say?

May certainly was the perfect character to shoot Cal. It's also no wonder that she ran a safehouse/island for abused women so she was able to save some people, if not her own family. In the sequel excerpt in the back of my copy of the book, it says that May is on trial and that more of Towner's memories are uncovered. She begins a love affair with some other guy along with Rafferty and she starts uncovering more secrets. Is Barry going to try to pull off another big surprise? And is a sequel just Barry's grasping attempt at recreating the success of the first book? 'Cause that would be lame.

Caren: Hmm, yeah, I don't know how I feel about that. I thought The Lace Reader ended well enough that we don't really need the rest of the story. I worry that trying to push it further will make the characters suffer, but I guess the sequel will show if Barry has lasting talent or not. Overall, I thought it was a great read, but I'm with you and wouldn't mind taking a break from the abuse themes for a while!

1 comment:

  1. To find out more about the real tunnels in Salem Brunonia Barry talks about read Salem Secret Underground:The History of the Tunnels in the City and then take the cool Salem walking tour about them. Learn how 144 people hid behind the creation of a park to build a series of tunnels in Salem utilizing the nation’s first National Guard to build them so a superior court justice, a Secretary of the Navy, and a bunch of Senators could avoid paying Jefferson’s custom duties. Engineered by the son of America’s first millionaire.