After a two month break over the holidays our small group reunited to discuss Brunonia Barry's The Lace Reader. Although one of our members was absent we welcomed a new member to the group. We all agreed that two months was too long between meetings and even though a book a month is ambitious for some of our busy members, we decided to stick with it.
When selecting the book for our January meeting we read the five-star as well as the one-star reviews. Most readers praised The Lace Reader. Those who gave it a low rating primarily did so because of the ending. So in reading this book we were expecting a twist at the end. Even so, none of us guessed correctly.
The author's web site describes the story as follows:
Towner Whitney, the self-confessed unreliable narrator, hails from a family of Salem women who can read the future in the patterns in lace, and who have guarded a history of secrets going back generations. Now the disappearance of two women is bringing Towner back home to Salem—and is bringing to light the shocking truth about the death of her twin sister.
In the opening pages of the novel, Towner tells the reader that she lies, and that she is crazy. Barry does an excellent job of hooking the reader with tantalizing hints about convoluted family relationships. The reader struggles to make sense of Towner's past (she changed her name from Sophya) and the parts played by her mother and aunts. In the end we learn just how unreliable Towner really is as a narrator.
Although we all liked The Lace Reader, our discussion revealed just how convoluted the story is. Perhaps a sign that Barry did an admirable job in developing her theme of Perception versus Reality. It would require a rereading of the novel to verify that Barry played fair with the reader. I think she did. During our discussion we were repeatedly correcting each other as to which character knew and did what, and which events were real or imagined.
The Lace Reader does have its shortcomings. There were dangling story lines that were not completed satisfactorily -- at least for us. The first half of the book is written in first person present text. From the middle to the end of the book the point of view alternates between first person and third person and at times becomes confusing as to which POV we are reading. We wondered if the POV confusion was intentional or a breakdown in writing.
Interestingly enough, we found the title and the fortunetelling associated with the title to have little relevance to the novel. Each chapter begins with a snippet from "The Lace Reader's Guide" compiled by one of the characters. I expected these passages to have relevance to the following chapter but didn't always find a connection. Clairvoyance does play a part in the novel, but the vision of the future most relevant to the story's climax did not emerge from a lace reading. We decided the novel should have been titled Swimming to the Moon.
Despite the issues we had with the novel, it did spark a lively discussion about individual perceptions, how we carry and project our personal perceptions of events, and how people cope with trauma (in healthy or unhealthy ways).
Since one of our members had already started reading The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, we selected it for our February meeting. We are all contributing book ideas for the coming year and will choose our 2012 books at our next meeting. It sounds like we'll have an intriguing mix of fiction and nonfiction to sort through.