The Drowning Tree: A Novel Paperback – Dec 28 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Goodman (The Lake of Dead Languages) delivers another captivating literary mystery of secrets old and new. After 15 years, Juno McKay returns to Penrose College, her alma mater, to hear her friend Christine give a lecture on a beautiful stained-glass window designed by the college's founder and featuring, it was assumed, his wife, Eugenie Penrose. But Christine's research has led her to other conclusions, and her lecture raises many carefully groomed eyebrows. Juno wonders if her always controversial friend has gone too far, and later, she's puzzled by Christine's odd questions and behavior, particularly regarding Juno's ex-husband, Neil, confined to a mental institution called Briarwood these last 14 years. Christine departs, leaving many unanswered questions, and days later, Juno discovers her body in the Hudson River near the college. With elegant precision, Goodman envelops readers in Juno's life, as well as in the lives of her daughter, Bea, and Eugenie and her institutionalized, lovelorn sister, Clare. As Juno finds herself plunged into the middle of a murder investigation, she begins to retrace the path of Christine's research, uncovering tangled connections among the prestigious college, the Briarwood mental facility and her own family history. This is an artful thriller, with rich, vivid descriptions of works of art, Hudson River Valley scenery and the knotty inner terrain of its characters' hearts.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Juno McKay is thrilled when her best friend Christine returns to their upstate New York college, Penrose, to give a lecture about the stained-glass window Juno will be restoring. Christine shocks her audience when she theorizes that Augustus Penrose, the college's founder, depicted his sister-in-law, Clare, not his wife, Eugenie, in the window. After the lecture, Juno finds Christine somewhat troubled and worries about her after she boards her train home. A week later, Juno and her 15-year-old daughter, Bea, kayak on the Hudson River to the Penrose estate, Astolat, where they discover a body: Christine. Heartbroken by her friend's death, which appears to be a suicide, Juno tries to find out what could have driven her over the edge. The search leads Juno in unexpected directions, one of which involves her handsome ex-husband, Neil, who has been a patient in the local asylum for 14 years, ever since he tried to drown himself, Juno, and Bea. Goodman is spot-on at developing a creepy, gothic atmosphere and delivering a compelling, tightly plotted mystery. Kristine Huntley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
While Juno McKay may still live and work in her small hometown, she's always tried to avoid attending any social functions at Penrose College, mostly because she failed to graduate (an unplanned pernancy) with her class, and because of the stunning and dramatic manner in which her young husband, Neil Buchwald, descended into madness two years into their marriage. But when her best friend, Christine Webb, uses their fifteenth class reunion as an opportunity to deliver a lecture on the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts & Crafts movement and the impact that this movement had on the college's founders, Ambrose and Eugenie Penrose, Juno girds up her courage in order to attend. The lecture turns out to be both informative and controversial as Christine hints at the true nature of the relationship that Ambrose Penrose had with his sister-in-law, Claire (who later went mad and was confined at Briarwood, the very place that, almost 80 years later, Juno's husband, Neil, was institutionalized at), as well as delivering a different interpretation of the stained-glass window that Penrose had designed (now gracing the college's library), and which Juno's small glass company is about to repair and restore. But while the lecture may have gone down well, Juno senses that Christine is not all that happy.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Ms. Goodman likes mythology and classic literature and art. She moves the plot along by using parallels from mythological tales such as Baucis and Philemon, two ancient lovers turned into a tree by Zeus who granted the couple's wish that they may die together and be guardians of Zeus's temple. This sounds heavy-handed, but it isn't. Such myths work well within the storyline.
The author builds her primary mystery around a painting that served as the model for an artsy stained-glass window at Penrose College. The narrator Juno McKay attended Penrose, but didn't graduate because she got pregnant and married her boyfriend Neil. Juno's story opens with a brief dream sequence, then segues into reality as she rushes to hear her best friend Christine give a lecture about the artist and other personalities associated with the painting/window.
There's a lot of action in the book, considering it's what I'd call a literary mystery. Juno's husband Neil is mentally ill, and has been in a long-term care facility since he tried to drown Juno and their daughter Beatrice years ago. Juno has several romantic interests, and the reader wonders who will triumph in the end, although one of the men's names is a dead giveaway.
Penrose college is one of those tony schools up North with hefty tuition and lofty expectations as well as a delicious scandal that unfolds. Several mysteries run concurrently, but are neatly wrapped up in the end.
Ms. Goodman manages to take on a bit of literary and artistic theory without boring the reader. One tool she uses to do this is an antique diary written by the alleged subject of the painting, Eugenie Penrose, who writes, "Think of how a mood is changed by our surroundings-how more harmonious is the life lived among beautiful things."
This mystery has the classic red herring, a well-constructed story-line, and a budding romance in addition to modern and historical love triangles. A primary theme in the book is water as both a giver and taker of life. The book is written by a thinker, by an author who obviously loves words, and is well-read in the classics important to Western civilization.
I'd recommend this book to any reader, because it will work for readers on different levels. Those who like to think about philosophy and art will appreciate it, as will those who simply want to be entertained. It's a breath of fresh air in the popular mystery field, and it's a great read to boot.
These seemingly disparate elements come together seamlessly, and I was repeatedly struck while reading this book how knowledgeable the author is. Her grasp of languages, history, and psychology are impressive, and I have to admit, I felt a bit smarter after reading this book.
Which is not to say that it is perfect. There are small holes in the storyline, but they're not obvious, and they don't take away from the intriguing and engaging tone of the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. The ending was a bit too contrived, however the author could have taken the plot twists in several different directions, and she chose an interesting resolution to the problems the protagonist faces.
Ultimately I gave this book 5 stars because I was so pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. If you like thrillers, particularly those written by someone who's at least as smart as you are (if not more), you can hardly do better.
I expected the same from her in this one, and at first, she delivered. The plot is pure Carol Goodman, with a thirtysomething heroine, unfulfilled in her romantic and artistic lives, confronting a trauma from her past while trying to unspool a mystery. Her writing is exquisite, all done in dreamlike, present tense narrative, and the backdrop of the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts & Crafts Movements is done as well as Latin and folklore were done in her previous two novels.
However, Goodman's tale falls apart hopelessly in the last chapter or two. The strong appeal of her stories for me has always been the central mystery, at the heart of which has always been a deep, dark secret, the best sort of Gothic twist, and at first, Goodman seems to be taking us down that path in her best tradition: a scandal from the past, madness, and love gone wrong. However, she suddenly makes a turn toward the end leading us to an utterly pedestrian demouement that seems more fitting to the workman-like prose of Lisa Gardner than to Goodman. It's incogruous, her lovely writing with this hackneyed, silly resolution, and the red herrings she planted along the way are left unresolved or hastily and incompletely explained.
I read Carol Goodman because she usually rises above this. Not this time. Disappointing.
Goodman takes her time telling her story of love, friendship, betrayal, heritage and madness. The plot enfolds amidst much evocative delving into the past where deadly secrets are buried in recently discovered sketches, letters, deliberately misassembled stained glass paintings, submerged treasures in out-of-bounds estate grounds, etc. All this paves the way for a denouement that isn't as much predictable as artificial, as if Goodman is trying her damnest to avoid the obvious once readers have cottoned onto the truth very early on about what really happened more than a hundred years ago. For this reason, I found the ending somewhat anti-climactic, like a last minute diversion into some minor lane. It is ultimately the consistently high quality of writing that rescues the "The Drowning Tree" from being an averagely plotted thriller. Goodman should find new plot direction if she is to avoid repetition and being stuck in a rut.
Four stars for the plot but five stars overall.
In this novel, Ms. Goodman's protagonist is Juno McKay, a college drop-out due to pregnancy who has spent the past 15 years bringing up her daughter alone after her husband goes mad, tries to kill them and ends up in an insane asylum. Following in her father's footsteps, she has become a restorer of stained glass. While restoring a window for her should-have-been alma mater, her best friend dies and she becomes swept up in the investigation of the death.
There are plenty of twist and turns in the story though the real joy of her stories are not surprises (they aren't really that surprising) but the prose. I may not really be able to believe that it takes Juno as long as it does to read the diary pages she finds (I mean, it's 10 minutes reading max and there's a mystery here, for crying out loud) and she's pretty dense about some things (like Neil, for instance) but, like the Hudson that flows through the center of this story (OK, I also enjoy
the fact that for the second time now, she has placed key action in the north tip of Manhattan--places I know because I live here), it flows easily towards its wild conclusion. It's a good read.
If Ms. Goodman is showing an overall weakness, it is borrowing from herself. She stays well within her safety net here: another northeast school campus intrigue with a well-educated but struggling woman protagonist. However, it's difficult to be critical since many authors tend to stay within a certain milleau and they're always told to "write what you know." Still, it might be nice for her to break some new ground in her next novel. Though I have to admit, I am interested in what obsesses her about water: The Lake of Dead Languages, The Seduction of Water and, now, The Drowning Tree. (Plus a lot of drowned characters in three novels.) Maybe we'll get some more clues in the next one.