The Whitney family is legendary in Salem, Massachusetts. They are said to be mad as hatters for three generations running, but the women in the family are the best fortune tellers around. Towner Whitney, the protagonist of Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader, is perhaps the oddest of them all. She’s been gone from Salem for fifteen years, but when she returns after her great-aunt’s death, people are still whispering about her. Towner’s return is a catalyst for reckonings that have been a long time coming.
I tagged this book as a mystery, though it doesn’t follow many of the genre conventions. There is some question about whether Towner’s great-aunt was murdered and another woman disappears in suspicious circumstances. If this was an ordinary mystery novel, the detective—Rafferty—wouldn’t have such a hard time finding clues that point to a culprit. Rather, the real mystery in The Lace Reader is what happened to Towner and her sister fifteen years ago. So, while we learn about the sinister born again preacher, Cal, who was Towner’s uncle, the plot ends up taking us in a completely different direction.
Towner never wanted to come back to Salem. She really only came back to go to the funeral. Her great-aunt Eva’s will makes it impossible for Towner to cut ties once more. When she was a teenager, Towner suffered a mental breakdown and underwent electroconvulsive therapy. Consequently, she doesn’t remember much of what happened to her or her dead twin sister. Being back in Salem mostly makes her feel afraid, paranoid, and physically ill. We spend most of the book in Towner’s head as she tries to come to terms with Cal and her history. Rafferty also takes turns as our narrator. We also get to dip into old police reports and Towner’s journal from her time in a psychiatric hospital.
As if the possible murder, disappearance, and past crimes weren’t enough, The Lace Reader also treats us to a family tradition of prognostication via lace, an underground railroad for abused women, legal wrangling, witches, latter-day faux Calvinists, lots of swimming and sailing, and hallucinations. It’s a lot to be getting on with.
On the surface, it’s hard to know what we’re meant to make of The Lace Reader. While it was interesting, the plot bowed under the weight of all the things Barry was trying to include in this book. If the book had been longer or if there had been a completely omniscient third person narrator, The Lace Reader wouldn’t have been so confused. But then, the story would have lost the ambiguity it needed to be a psychological thriller. Still, I think this book could have been better executed.