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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Connie's Out- of-Her- Genre Book Report

(sorry, I copied this from Amazon and couldn't get the "search me" caption off.)
Besides eating, shopping, and chasing children, I suspect a lot of us spent time reading this holiday vacation. I know I did. Snatched my reading time right out of the middle of the night. So here’s yet another...Book Report!

I have no idea why I picked up Martha Grimes’s Belle Ruin. It was hardcover and I generally don’t spring for a hardcover unless I am 80% certain of loving the book and I hadn’t even read a review of it. But I loved the cover art (unsurprisingly, I discovered after purchasing it that the cover was a facsimile of an Edward Hopper watercolor called “Mansard Roof,” an architecture sketch which I am sure many of you will look at and say, “so?” because there’s not much to it) and ten years earlier I had been a fan of Grimes’s Richard Jury mysteries (contemporaries set in England.)

I brought it home, scooted through the cover flap literature and realized it was third in a series, the first of which was entitled Hotel Paradise , followed by Cold Flat Junction. Back to the bookstore where I happily discovered that Hotel Paradise was available in mass market ( Bonus! It also had an Edward Hopper cover, too!) I bought it and started it that evening.

Reading this book was a fascinating, oddly troubling, sometimes humorous, drift in a fog. While ostensibly a mystery that takes place in some backwater of time and culture on the northeastern coast, the story is more the coming-of-age novel of the narrator, Emma, a smart, morose, sneaky and imaginative twelve year old girl. Yes, yes, yes, I’ve now read the reviews and I agree, Emma’s observations are often too sharp, her language too sophisticated for her age. I just don’t care.

Grimes is such an exquisite language craftsman. In her hands Emma’s smaller bits resonate just as much as the more important observations from her description of the cheese and ham pinwheels her mother (a gifted chef) creates to the longing and fear an open field in winter under a white sky evokes.

An old photograph sets fire to Emma’s imagination and before long she has uncovered a decades’ old tragedy that she, seemingly arbitrarily, believes is an unsolved murder. And so Emma begins an “investigation" that forces her out of her shell, out of the ruined summer resort hotel once owned by her family (and where now her widowed mother works as a cook) and into the lives of the extremely odd and varied locals of Silver Lake.

Time is the real protagonist here. The town of Silver Lake exists as a sort of modern Brigadoon—the murder (or, as it happens, murders, because, as Emma figures out, all unresolved tragedies echo down through the years) casting a spell over the entire region that you cannot help but feel will broken only when someone “wakes up enough” to recognize the crime that has been committed.

This “sleeping beauty’s castle” theme plays extremely effectively. Even though I consider myself a careful reader, I was unable to pinpoint either where Silver Lake is or when. There is a sort of torpid innocence hanging over the lives of those in Silver Lake, a bell jar quality to Emma’s life and the lives of those she loves, that ultimately creeps you out. It’s as if they are shifting in time, one moment the 40’s the next the 70’s, waiting to be discovered.

What we look at, at what point we look away, what we allow ourselves to see and how we are in collusion with criminals who are our neighbors are the sorts of questions Grimes raises, via the sort of conversation you might overhear in small towns over morning coffee, “Whatever happened to that baby?”

I probably don’t need to say this but I’ve now read the three books that thus far comprise the series. Not every one is as successful as this. Still, I’m happily awaiting number four. There are mysteries yet to be revealed, repercussions that are alluded to but not yet felt, that I’m eager to explore.

So, what was the best book that you read, NOT a romance, this holiday season?
Connie Brockway, 9:34 AM
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