I would like to take this moment and say thank you to Brunonia Barry for writing a beautiful, haunting, intelligent novel that I found impossible to put down. Barry’s The Lace Reader is an elegant novel that packed an incredible amount of good things into less than 400 pages. I think the best way to write this is to compile a list.
The novel is mostly in first person, and its narrator, Towner Whitney, admits on the first page that she is unreliable, warning readers to warily trust her recounting of events. As if to prove this, she admits that her name isn’t even really Towner, but is, in fact, Sophya. She is a woman who has health problems of multiple sorts, but whose mental health is by far the most abysmal of all. It is clear she suffers from delusions and depression, though the reader does not discover how serious these are until the end of the novel. She and most of the other important characters are very well-developed. May, her mother, is an agoraphobic feminist who houses abused women on a secluded island. Eva, her great-aunt, has the gift of Sight, which she channels through the patterns in the lace that she makes. Cal, the villain, is a cult leader who has a special vendetta against Towner and the rest of her family. Towner, despite her infinite flaws and her many weaknesses, is a protagonist I had no problems getting behind. She deserved my empathy, and I cared for her as I would a long-suffering friend.
Although it is for the most part set in Salem, Massachusetts in the mid-1990s, Barry plays with time a lot, utilizing hallucinations, flashbacks, and dreams to enhance the story. Still, the majority of these focuses on this beautiful section of the northeastern coast of the United States. In the case of this novel, the location is very much vital to setting a mood, and the characters are all products of their physical place in space. For instance, one of the supporting characters is a witch. Some even believe that Eva is a witch, as well as the rest of the Whitney women. Towner, her brother, and her love-interest are all expert sailors, and these play a significant part in the plot. The history of Salem helps bolster the plot and set a tone for the entire novel, which is often one of suspicion, gloom, and religious persecution. A great deal of it happens on a fictional island that is only accessible by one ramp, controlled by Towner’s reclusive mother–the perfect setting for the development and perpetuation of agoraphobia.
This is, of course, the most important. At least to most people, although a novel rich in plot but lacking everything else would be rather unpleasant to read. After all, who cares what happens to a character that isn’t believable? But Barry’s characters are, and so her rich plot is very much appreciated. Towner receives a call from her brother, who asks that she return to Salem from California because her great-aunt Eva has gone missing. Her return forces her to face dark family secrets and memories that she has attempted to subdue by running all the way across the country. Things escalate, as they tend to do, and…well, I won’t say anymore. Just know that it’s a little mystery and suspense, a little mysticism and magic, and a lot of family drama.
There are lots of mini-twists in the middle that I really did not see coming. But holy cow, the end took my breath away. Just be ready to get slammed in the chest with surprise. And don’t go looking for it. Allowing yourself to get caught off guard is part of what is so magical about this novel.
A lot of people will expect witchcraft or fortune-telling to figure prominently in the novel. While Towner and Eva do seem to have a special talent for foresight, Towner spends much of the book hiding from these talents. Do not expect this novel to focus heavily on the paranormal or the supernatural. Those things are plot devices and make for interesting setting and premise, but the novel is truly about families reconnecting, old wounds healing, truths being revealed, and troubled minds being put at ease. It is a beautiful novel, though often very sad, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a novel that keeps the pages turning. I couldn’t put it down and I wish there was more!