The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry. Published 2008 by HarperCollins. Fiction.
The Lace Reader is an enigmatic mystery/suspense novel set in present-day Salem, Massachusetts, the so-called "Witch City". It's not a mystery in the conventional whodunit sense but more an unreliable-narrator story in the tradition of such books as Yann Martel's Life of Pi, where truth slips between the cracks and you understand the characters by understanding their delusions. The Lace Reader may be more accessible, but its protagonist, Towner Whitney, is about as deluded as they come.
The story opens as Towner returns to Salem from a long stay in California, following the disappearance of her great-aunt Eva, a psychic, lace-maker (and reader) and member of the local gentry. Towner's family is an old-money Salem shipping clan though nowadays their luster has faded some. The story concerns the fate of Eva and that of a young woman called Angela Rickey, a runaway and street person who's fallen in with Cal, Towner's erstwhile uncle, an alcoholic turned cult leader. And it's about Towner's fate, too.
All of the Whitney women are psychics who tell fortunes by concentrating on patterns in handmade lace. Each chapter opens with a passage from Eva's book, The Lace Reader's Guide, and lace-reading has touched the Whitney women profoundly. Eva made reading it her occupation; May, Towner's mother, is a recluse who runs a home for abused women where she teaches them how to make it; and Towner is a gifted reader who gave it up because she believes that reading lace caused the death of her twin sister, Lyndley.
But did it? Nothing is quite what it seems in The Lace Reader. About halfway through I felt like it was so muddled I almost gave up- I couldn't remember how people were related, how the details of their histories gelled, and the plot didn't seem to be the one promised on the cover. But I stuck with it and I'm glad I did. I think the muddling is intentional and it does all get cleared up. And there was a lot that I liked. I liked the characters- Towner, despite her flaws, is someone I cared about and Rafferty, the cop investigating the womens' disappearance is also very sympathetic. I thought their tentative, slowly-progressing relationship made sense for who they were and what they'd been through. Eva was fascinating and I wish I'd gotten to know her better. The narrative, which seemed slow at first, picked up and flew to a satisfying conclusion.
And I enjoyed the local-color aspect- Brunonia Barry knows Salem well and did her homework on the history. The details about the historical witch hunts and the present-day Salem, a colorful, diverse Boston suburb, added depth to the story. Full disclosure: I was born in Salem and still consider it a second home and her depiction rang true for me. It's also the kind of book you want to re-read immediately after finishing it. You think you have it figured out, then something shifts and you realize it's a kaleidoscope you've been looking through instead of a window. It took me a while to see the pattern in The Lace Reader but it was worth the wait.
Side note: One thing that's really interesting to me about this book is what a self-publishing success story it is. Brunonia Barry originally had The Lace Reader self-published last fall, and did a small ARC giveaway to bloggers back in August of last year ( and I was one of the lucky recipients of one of those ARCs). A Salem bookstore supported her with events and promotions and she sold about 2,000 copies from what I heard. Then earlier this year, I was floored to find out it was coming out from a major publisher. I have a feeling that this book is all you're going to see in stores from July 29, when it's supposed to come out, through the end of the summer if not the end of the year. Congratulations, Brunonia Barry!
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review.