"The Drowning Tree" may not be to the average mystery reader's taste because it is very introverted and a little slow-moving. However, it is a well written novel, and if you enjoy Ovid's "Metamorphoses," Pre-Raphaelite painting and a nice slowish-moving (but with lots of character development) mystery novel, you're bound to enjoy "The Drowning Tree." 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. Something is disturbing Christine, but unfortunately the two friends don't have the time to have a real heart-to-heart before Christine has to leave to go back to the city. And a week later, Juno finds Christine's body in the sunken lake on the old, ruined Penrose estate. Because of her history with depression and substance abuse, everyone assumes that Christine has killed herself. But Juno is not so sure; and when, in the course of her research about the Penrose stained-glass window, she comes across Eugenie's diary, with entries that seem to suggest that the Penroses had one particularly big skeleton in their closet, a secret that someone may be willing to kill to protect, she begins to wonder about the connection between Christine and the Penroses... Sedately paced and of a literary-bent (don't worry though, Carol Goodman is very good about not talking down to her audience), "The Drowning Tree" was a real treat to read. The novel is told almost exclusively from Juno's point-of-view, and in Juno, Carol Goodman has created a chief protagonist that almost anyone can relate to -- a very human woman with strengths as well as weaknesses. The authour fully immerses the reader into Juno's life and with her concerns, and this gave the novel a sense of immediacy which (fortunately) downplayed the moderate pacing quite a bit. I also enjoyed all the literary references to Ovid's "Metamorphoses" and the vivid descriptions of the art that portrayed in these myths. But what made this book truly amazing was the manner in which the subplots involving the Penroses in the past, Christine's murder and Briarwood Institution all get entwined into one lyrical whole, thus making "The Drowning Tree" both a very lyrical and memorable read indeed.
The Drowning Tree is a tightly plotted mystery but the characters are also compelling. Goodman does not sacrifice full characters and rich language for plot. This book combines it all. I couldn't put this book down. Try The Sonnet Lover, as well. I think it's Goodman's best yet.
I enjoyed Goodman's first two academic gothic mysteries quite a lot but this one never even achieves sufficient spark to fizzle out. The book just never clicks, there's nothing for the reader to go for. Well, there is one thing and I thought it finest kind -- the underwater sculpture garden. That could have been so cool ... but, in the end, wasn't.