About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

#45 - Secrets of Eden

Yesterday -- only a day overdue! -- I finished Secrets of Eden (New York: Shaye Areheart Books, 2010).

Jacket summary: "'There,' says Alice Hayward to Reverend Stephen Drew, just after her baptism, and just before going home to the husband who will kill her that evening and then shoot himself. Drew, tortured by the cryptic finality of that short utterance, finds his faith in God slipping away and is saved from despair only by a meeting with Heather Laurent, the author of wildly successful, inspirational books about .. angels.

"Heather survived a childhood that culminated in her own parents' murder-suicide, so she identifies deeply with Alice's daughter, Katie, offering herself as a mentor for the girl and a shoulder for Stephen -- who flees the pulpit to be with Heather and see if there is anything to be salvaged from the spiritual wreckage around him.

"But then the state's attorney begins to suspect that Alice's husband may not have killed himself ... and finds out that Alice had secrets only her minister knew."

Opening line: "As a minister I rarely found the entirety of a Sunday service depressing."

My take: Initially, I felt like I was reading the much-revised final version of a story that started out as The Law of Similars. I got over it -- Secrets ultimately proved to be a stronger book -- but it nonetheless had its flaws, and is a long way from being as compelling as Midwives or The Double Bind.

Set in contemporary, bucolic Haverhill, Vermont, Secrets of Eden is narrated in turn by four different characters: Stephen Drew, the (so it seems) unusually bereaved and guilty pastor who baptized Alice only hours before her death; state attorney Catherine Benincasa, whose storybook family life contrasts dramatically with the horrors she sees in her work, and who becomes suspicious of Drew almost immediately; Heather Laurent, rock star author whose hippie-dippie, New Age-y beliefs about angels stem from a pivotal moment in her own tragic childhood; and Katie, the Haywards' now-orphaned 15-year-old daughter and all-around Good Kid, whose future the others can only begin to imagine.

You just know when you start a book like this that there's going to be a twist at the end. There is, of course, and I'm a bit disappointed in myself for not guessing correctly what it would be. We do learn, fairly early on, that whether or not it resembles Eden, there are secrets aplenty in Haverhill. Alice's diary is found, and its easily-deciphered code reveals that Stephen was her lover as well as her pastor. Crime scene analysis (I'll spare you the grisly details, which seemed a bit over the top to me) suggests that while George Hayward may have killed Alice, he probably didn't shoot himself. And Stephen, whose faith was faltering even before Alice's murder, feels called to leave his pulpit and Haverhill ... only to arrive in New York City on Heather's doorstep. Understandably, this starts to look a little suspicious.

Perhaps the book would have been more compelling had the narrators been introduced in a different order. Other reviewers have complained that Stephen is unlikeable, and while I don't disagree, I think the bigger problem is that he's just not very interesting. This is too bad, as the introductory chapter -- in which he ponders his growing irritation with the (in his words) whiny concerns his church members bring forward for prayer each Sunday -- has some promise; suggesting a disillusionment with the ministry that's at once funny and sad. Likewise, Catherine Benincasa, the second narrator, just doesn't seem to fit into the story all that well. Sure, I understand her role as the state's attorney, but we see very little of her actually interacting with Stephen, Katie, or any of the other principals. It's as though Bohjalian dropped her in to provide explanations, forgetting that it's always more interesting to be shown than to be told.

Heather's narrative is more solid, and the character more likeable, than the previous two, but as with Law of Similars, it's hard to understand how she and Stephen become romantically involved. Given that she herself was orphaned by her own parents' murder-suicide, after witnessing years of their abuse, her empathy for Katie makes sense, but I think we'd have had a better story had the author not needed to shoehorn this whirlwind love affair between troubled souls in there.

Katie's section seemed to me the strongest of the four, probably because Bohjalian succeeds in capturing the minutae that make an adolescent character believable: her awkwardness about imposing on her best friend's family, who take her in after her parents die; her bemused observation about teachers giving her a free pass; her complicated views and feelings about her parents' marriage. Unfortunately, the skillful way in which she's rendered doesn't manage to give us a deeper understanding of her parents, or even get to know Heather and Stephen more thoroughly. In the end, it's only mildly interesting to find out what really happened, and only Katie we can bring ourselves to care or wonder about once the book ends.

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