An exploration of loss spanning two centuries from the author
of Lake People (2013).
Jane is 12 when her older sister, Henrietta, disappears from
their New England town. This is sometime around the turn of the millennium and
20 years before Jane begins her tale. In the 1850s, Claire is still living at
home with her parents when her older sister, Elspeth, stops sending letters
from America. What unites these two narratives—aside from the coincidences—is a
building in the woods. In Elspeth’s time, it’s the house her husband built for
her and their children. In Jane’s time, it’s a ruin and the setting of fables
her father tells his two girls. This is an ungainly book, more like
two unfinished novels loosely stitched together than a coherent, multifaceted
whole. Jane narrates her own story, but she never emerges as a real person.
That she remains a shadow of her older sister makes psychological sense, but it
makes for a boring character. And Henrietta herself is, in the sections
narrated by Jane, little more than a sexually precocious loner and a bit of a
jerk. It’s hard to see what makes her so fascinating that Jane doesn’t seem to
have a life of her own even before Henrietta’s disappearance rips a hole in
everything. And Henrietta remains inscrutable even when she’s describing her
experiences in her own voice. More than that, the portion of the novel that
covers Henrietta’s early days on her own is simply incredible. Readers are
expected to believe that a 15-year-old girl with no form of identification is
able to get two jobs and buy a car. The fact that one of these jobs is as the
caretaker of an empty and isolated home is also fantastically convenient. This
teen also pays for everything with crisp $100 bills that she clips from uncut
sheets herself with scissors; this stolen fortune is another astonishingly
lucky break for the runaway. The sections of the book set in the 19th century
are slightly more compelling, but, even here, the text reads more like notes
toward a novel than a finished work.
Odd and unsatisfying.