Like many whose youthful dreams have gone awry, Juno McKay, the narrator-heroine of Carol Goodman's third novel, "The Drowning Tree," does not relish the prospect of attending her college reunion.
Juno's troubles, however, are extreme. Once an aspiring painter, she became pregnant and dropped out of college to get married; Neil, her husband, later tried to drown her, and their child has been institutionalized ever since.
Still caught up in her dreams and memories of Neil, Juno resists new romantic involvements and devotes herself to her teenage daughter and to her work in her family's glassmaking factory.
What draws Juno to her 15th reunion is the chance to hear her best friend, Christine, an art historian, discuss her research on a magnificent stained-glass window, designed by college founder Augustus Penrose and depicting his wife, Eugenie. Christine's lecture stuns the audience when she argues that the image on the window is actually that of Clare, Eugenie's mad half sister, and thus raises tantalizing questions about the Penrose family, supposedly good and proper Victorians.
Spending time with Christine after the lecture, Juno finds her tense and troubled. Within days, Juno and her daughter discover Christine's drugged and drowned body while kayaking on the Hudson, near the Penrose family estate.
And that's just for starters in this colorful, intricate tale. Juno's quest to learn what happened to Christine takes her on a wondrous expedition: She glimpses into the turbulent lives and emotions of Augustus, Eugenie, and Clare; investigates goings-on at the local mental hospital where she reconnects with Neil; and remembers her college days, when she, Christine, and Neil were fellow artists and daredevils. Questions within questions arise; surprising links emerge between past and present.
Though rightly billed as a thriller, "The Drowning Tree" is best read in the study rather than at the beach. Goodman's main characters are passionate artists and scholars for whom living and creativity are inseparable; their thoughts, work, and conversation are sprinkled with allusions to classical mythology, Dante, Ovid, the pre-Raphaelite painters, and the poetry of Tennyson.
Goodman also brings to the narrative her trademark meticulous attention to mood and atmosphere. She eschews swift, plain storytelling and instead, employing abundant water imagery, invests her settings with an ominous but magical quality: For example, Christine's body is discovered in a pool covered with water lilies from which bizarre statuary arises. A decaying mansion overlooks the scene.
Goodman's approach is risky: The parallel Victorian and contemporary stories verge on melodrama; the characters might have come across as arty and affected; and the busyness and density of the plot could have become ends in themselves. Yet the novel succeeds as something more than an entertaining soap opera or a clever jigsaw puzzle. Like the characters in the art and literature they so love, Juno, Christine, and Neil seek healing and renewal. Each has reasons to hide from the world. Christine's interpretation of the figure in the stained-glass window, a woman at a loom, becomes an expression of the journeys they take.
Drawing on Tennyson's Arthurian poem "The Lady of Shalott," which tells of a lady weaver condemned to a life of confinement, Christine examines the moment when the lady rebels against her cloistered existence and looks away from her loom and directly at Sir Lancelot. In Christine's view, Tennyson has portrayed an awakening, a gathering of strength and courage, even in the face of death.
Juno, Christine, and Neil engage our interest because, like the lady at the loom, they are not passive and resigned. Though the high hopes of their college years have fallen apart, they try to build new lives.
Goodman thus immerses readers in a fun and quirky mystery and at the same time explores universal themes of loss and disappointment and the redeeming possibilities of creativity, friendship, and work.
Christine sees the lady at the loom as "you and me," as a person struggling to face the demands of the world with all the risks and hardships involved. The same can be said of the novel's main characters, and so we root for them as they make their way through the strange and dangerous surroundings Goodman has conjured up.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.
Academic intrigue in stained glass
July 25, 2004
Section: ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
Special to The Denver Post
It is an unalloyed pleasure to witness a writer growing into the fullness of early promise. Carol Goodman, who writes unusually rich literary suspense, hits her stride with "The Drowning Tree." Hers are readers looking for more than business-as-usual cardboard characters or predictable plot twists. They reasonably expect the mind games and subtle puzzles that Goodman delivers.
Juno McKay isn't truly a member of the Penrose class of 1987; she was pregnant when she dropped out just short of commencement. She joins the crowd at the 15th reunion assembly because her best friend and classmate, Christine Webb, is giving the keynote address. She has an additional interest. The class is funding her restoration of a stained-glass window, "The Lady in the Window," that is the stuff of campus legend.
Penrose, in the Hudson Valley, was a women's college when Juno attended, and the stained glass in question is a magnificent piece commissioned for the opening of the school library in 1922. It is thought that the model for the window was Eugenie, wife of artist and artisan August Penrose, founder of the college.
Christine offers a different, controversial take on the window's history. She believes the figure in the window is Eugenie's half-sister, Clare. Clare had traveled from England with the couple, but she spent her life in the nearby Briarwood Insane Asylum.
The asylum, now known as the more politically correct Briarwood Institute for Mental Health, is too familiar to Juno. Her ex-husband was confined there after a manic delusion led him to try to drown Juno and their infant daughter. She has moved on, reopening the Penrose family's Rose Glass works and turning her artistic talents to the restoration of stained glass.
Goodman's characters bring burdens from the past to bear on the challenges of the present. Christine disappears after her talk stirs up a hornet's nest, implying a family history of insanity that may reflect on Gavin Penrose, president of the college and its founder's grandson.
She had based her findings on information Eugenie left in a diary, but when Juno tries to trace her friend's path, she finds a critical page ripped from the book.
The narrative alternates between Juno's first-person experiences and notes left by the stern Eugenie. The result is effectively two mysteries, one revolving around the creation of "The Lady in the Window," and the second around Christine's disappearance. The key to both may lie in the water garden of the ruined Penrose estate, but such truth will be purchased at great price.
"The Drowning Tree" engages the reader on several levels. Christine's research uncovers a tantalizing triangle of relationships, one that is dead but still relevant. This web mirrors Juno's conflicts. One man, two women, probable insanity and the pursuit of art play out in a present that holds much conflict.
Juno walks a fine line in a community that has long been separated into two groups: a working class that supports Penrose and Briarwood, and the college elite. She also must confront her daughter's understandably growing need for independence and her passion for the man who is no longer her husband. Added to this heady mix is the world of the Pre-Raphaelite artists who brought the Arts and Crafts Movement to the United States and fascinating detail on the art of stained-glass restoration.
In less able hands, the complexity of the plot and the depth of the characters would prove an overwhelming confusion. Goodman's early promise ("The Lake of Dead Languages"), though, comes to full flower in this work. The natural pace of Juno's narration gives rise to a novel that is full of surprises. The difference between this novel and a product of lesser hands is that Goodman only allows twists and turns that are strongly rooted in the nature of the characters and the surroundings.
Robin Vidimos is a freelance writer who reviews books for The Denver Post and Buzz in the 'Burbs.
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