Author(s): Judith Maas, Globe Correspondent Date: January 23, 2003
Page: D2 Section: Living
Carol Goodman's suspense novel "The Seduction of Water" is premised on the notion that few phrases thrill a child so much as "Once upon a time." These delightful words not only promise immersion in a magical world, they bring closeness with the person telling the story. For the narrator-heroine Iris Greenfeder, the bedtime stories spun by her mother have been a defining experience, shaping her studies and work and plunging her into a series of adventures as enjoyably frightening for the reader as any fairy tale.
Like the best mysteries, "The Seduction of Water" offers puzzles and twists galore but still tells a human story - of a grown daughter, unsure of herself and seeking inspiration from her mother's life.
Goodman's inventive use of folklore and fairy tales adds yet another dimension, suggesting the allure of these narratives, with their strange mix of horror and playfulness, for teller and listener, and for young and old. Iris is the daughter of Ben, who managed an elegant hotel in the Catskills, and Kay, a writer of fantasy tales. The life and death of Kay, who first came to the hotel as a chambermaid, are shrouded in mystery. After marrying Ben, she devoted herself to her fiction, creating two parts of a trilogy about the land of Tirra Glynn, filled with weird, shape-shifting creatures. When Iris was 10, Kay, supposedly attending a writers conference in Manhattan, died in a hotel fire in Coney Island.
Envying her mother's ability to create and inhabit her own world, Iris longs to write as well and to understand what drew her mother into fantasy and seemingly away from her husband and child.
But Iris is blocked: She holds three part-time teaching jobs, which leave her with little time or energy for writing; her dissertation is unfinished; she is involved in a relationship in which she feels taken for granted. Still, Iris manages to compose an essay, tenderly recounting her mother's storytelling and the warmth the memories stir.
After the essay is published, Iris decides to write another piece on her mother.
She then hears from Kay's agent, who believes Kay had left a manuscript of the closing part of the trilogy. So Iris goes upstate to run the hotel and explore her mother's life, work, and death.
Her sleuthing puts her in contact with colorful figures from her mother's past; the trip proves to be filled with varied dangers and revelations.
Goodman's crisp, graceful writing keeps the reader engaged through the zigzagging plot. Lively and funny, Iris makes for a likable narrator.
Throughout, the reader experiences pleasurable tension between wanting to find out what happens next and trying to savor the descriptions of places and people.
Goodman finds the wonder in everyday sights, like trees in the city after a rain, making the novel rich in atmosphere: "The leaves are still that new spring green, not full enough yet to hide the elegant bone structure of their limbs. The street lamps make spider webs out of the slick wet branches."
Her language also serves to illuminate relationships; Iris's evocation of her mother's storytelling captures the absorption of mother and daughter in a nightly ritual: "She . . . would touch the long strands of pearls at her neck, the beads making a soft clicking sound, and close her eyes. I imagined that she closed her eyes because the story was somewhere inside her, on an invisible scroll unfurling behind her eyelids from which she read night after night, every word the same as the night before."
Goodman further draws character by interweaving tales and legends into the novel. Through these interludes, we come to see how these stories express the characters' problems and concerns, even as they seem far removed from all that is familiar. Anything but lighthearted, the tales recount the battles of their protagonists against cruelty and loss; heroes are forced into exile or are put under a curse that robs them of their true nature.
Their quests, to claim their identities and make a place for themselves, mirror everyday struggles while holding out the possibility of justice and healing. Fashioning one story from many, Goodman gives readers both an entertaining mystery and an intriguing glimpse into why we turn to stories in the first place.
December 29, 2002
Robin Vidimos Special to The Denver Post Carol Goodman is clearly a writer who doesn't know the meaning of sophomore slump. Her second novel, "The Seduction of Water," is more than worthy to stand beside "The Lake of Dead Languages." The first novel was a success with both critics and readers, and book groups should celebrate its impending paperback release. The new novel more than redeems the promise of the first with a many-layered, subtle piece of fiction that grabs the reader on the first page and holds on for the entire journey.
The reader steps into the story almost as one would step into an intimate conversation with a good friend. Iris Greenfelder, an only child, grew up in the Hotel Equinox, which her father managed. Her mother used to settle her for the night with a story based in Celtic folklore, "The Selkie." It is a changeling story, that of a seal who sheds her skin and for one night a year becomes a beautiful woman. If a man can find and steal the shed skin, the selkie cannot return to her ocean home; she has no choice but to follow him. And though she may be his wife and bear his children, she cannot be truly happy away from her first home, the sea.
It is a story that continues to haunt Iris. Her mother achieved fame in the world outside the Equinox using the tale of the selkie to create two books in what was intended to be a trilogy.
But if the third book was written, it was lost, and when Iris was 10 her mother died in a hotel fire in New York City.
Iris' life is adrift - she's a dissertation short of a Ph.D., she's in
a long-term relationship that isn't going much of anywhere and she's
teaching remedial writing courses to adults - when she writes "The
Selkie's Daughter." The short story began as a writing exercise but
ends up capturing the experience of the story and her mother.
Its publication in an obscure literary journal brings Iris to the
attention of hotelier Harry Kron as well as to Hedda Wolf, her mother's
literary agent. Hedda encourages Iris to write about her mother and
also to return to the Hotel Equinox to see if she can unlock the
mystery of the missing third manuscript.
The grand old hotel, three hours out of New York City and sitting on a
bluff overlooking the Hudson, has seen better days. The generations who
once visited have died off, and the owners are ready to move south.
Harry Kron decides to add the property to his chain of elegant Crown
hotels and asks Iris to manage the property, as her father once had,
for the summer.
While it's hardly a summer vacation, it is time that yields unexpected
benefits. Her mother's death never made sense to Iris, and this is an
opportunity to speak, as an adult, to many who knew her mother. Her
search for answers is watched closely, as she starts to uncover secrets
that have long been dormant.
"The Seduction of Water" is aptly titled, truly a seductive reading
experience. Goodman expertly weaves the tale of the selkie through
Iris' narrative. This story within a story is an elegant construction,
slowly revealing the truth of the mother's life. It also helps Iris
gain the strength to separate her present from her past and become the
woman she was meant to be.
The book's only flaw, and it's a minor one, is that the ending comes on
too quickly for the pace the book has set. The story is so nicely done,
and raises so many questions, it would have been nice to see the finale
extended a bit longer.
Robin Vidimos is a freelance writer who regularly reviews books for The
Denver Post and Buzz in the 'Burbs.
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