The Lace Reader must stare at the piece of lace until the pattern blurs and the face of the Seeker disappears completely behind the veil. When the eyes begin to fill with tears and the patience is long exhausted, there will appear a glimpse of something not quite seen. In this moment an image will begin to form…in the space between what is real and what is only imagined. -From The Lace Reader, page 1-
Brunonia Barry’s debut novel, The Lace Reader, is an unusual story which (like the lace which her Great Aunt Eva ‘reads’) is difficult to understand until the final pages. Part mystery with a literary twist exploring women’s issues (incest, mental illness, and family dynamics), the novel evolves slowly, developing from multiple story threads which all come back to the central character – Towner Whitney. The novel opens in Towner’s point of view, and the reader is warned: ‘Never believe me. I lie all the time.‘
Towner Whitney lives in California, but is motivated to return to her birthplace in Salem, Massachusetts when her brother calls to report Towner’s great aunt missing. Once back in New England, Towner must unravel the mystery of Eva’s disappearance while coming to terms with her own shattered past. Salem is recognized historically for the famous witch trials of 1692 and is an apt setting for a book which spins around precognition and the idea of intuition. As the story unfolds, it becomes difficult to ascertain what is real and what is only imagined. Barry alternates point of view from chapter to chapter – something which adds depth to her story and helps to fill in the missing pieces of Towner’s childhood.
Barry’s writing is strong, creating a gothic feel to the book. She steers away from cliche characters, instead giving us complex individuals. Despite these strengths, the book is not without its weaknesses.
At times the plot felt thin to me – and although the ending has a surprise twist, many times I was able to predict an event before it unfolded. I also wondered about the accuracy of police procedure when one character ‘disappears’ and a full-blown search is immediately begun. In most adult missing person cases searches do not occur for at least 48 hours as often it is assumed the person chose to disappear. I also thought it unlikely that a police department would assist an abusive man in finding an adult woman who had disappeared. Additionally, I picked up one geographical flaw which made me question the author’s reliability in other areas. A person residing in Sonoma County, California would not drive ‘up the coast to see it.‘ Rather they must follow a non-coastal route south to San Francisco. This seemed like a pretty obvious fact to get wrong.
The Lace Reader has an aggressive marketing campaign with a release date of July 29, 2008. Early reviews of the book have been mostly positive. I found it a quick and engaging read despite its flaws.