When a writer's debut novel is a smashing success, he or she is subject to second story scrutiny. Such is the case with Carol Goodman whose first book, LAKE OF DEAD LANGUAGES, is an atmospheric page-turner set at a girls' school in upstate New York. Her new novel, THE SEDUCTION OF WATER, inhabits the same spot on the same geographic location, but traverses the terrain from a completely different point of view. This time readers will find themselves at the Equinox Hotel, which is, according to the author, modeled after The Mohonk Mountain House, a historic landmark hotel in the Catskill Mountains.
As the novel opens, Iris Greenfeder is living her ABD (All But Dissertation) life as a part-time writing instructor. She teaches a group of émigrés in an ESL class, a different set of students in an art school and a number of inmates at the Van Winkle Prison. Here she meets Aiden Barry, a very intelligent and charming felon who turns up on her doorstep one rainy night after he's paroled. Of course "lightening strikes" these unlikely lovers, but that comes later.
Iris grew up in The Equinox where her father was the manager for fifty years and her mother, a former maid, wrote two bestselling fantasy novels. One night, when Iris was ten, her mother took off to attend a conference at The Algonquin Hotel in the city. She never got there. And, the following day, she was found dead in the ashes of a motel fire in Brooklyn -- a tragic accident or a vicious murder? What was Kay Greenfeder doing in that motel? Why was she registered as Mrs. John McGlynn? Whom was she meeting, if anyone? Was the third book in the trilogy in the works? Did she have a draft of it with her? If she did, was it stolen or did it burn up in the fire along with her body?
Iris is haunted by these questions even after thirty years. Mystery and speculation continue to surround the tragedy that took her mother's life and, despite her best efforts, she cannot tame the gremlins that invade her sleep and force themselves into every memory of her mother. Thus, when a series of coincidences (?) result in an offer for her to write a definitive biography of Kay Greenfeder, Iris is determined to unearth the truth behind the events of her death in order to discover who her mother really was and why she died the way she did.
Where to start? Iris decides to analyze the world created in her mother's fiction. Slowly she begins to realize that the stories might be a map to the hidden landscape of Kay's reality; the triptych that can expose why her fantasy fiction was so complicated and so personal an escape device. Surely the stories must hold clues to the "real" woman beneath the facade of seemingly devoted wife, doting mother, hotel hostess extraordinaire and successful novelist.
The tales are based on an Irish legend about the Selkie Girl: a seal-woman who pays a dear price when she morphs from one "skin" to the other and, as events unfold, she must abandon her daughter in order to save her own life. Iris is convinced that, when she unravels the metaphors, the symbols and the allusions that comprise the rich text of her mother's novels, she will find parallels to the family's life that will bring her to the heart of things.
Once this decision is made, she returns to The Equinox to search for the third manuscript her mother was allegedly writing; to question the people still at the hotel who remember Kay; and to put the demons of the past behind her while taking control of her life in the present.
The Equinox is a failing enterprise when the book opens. A hotelier of international fame and fortune buys the dying hotel and makes it the latest "jewel in his crown" of his upscale convention resorts. As it happens, he knows this particular hotel and its history from his sojourns here in the halcyon days of the past. He is a suave, smooth and savvy businessman who dazzles Iris and the staff. But who is he really? And why would he buy an old facility that is off the beaten path with little to offer besides some hiking trails and a spectacular view?
THE SEDUCTION OF WATER is a bildungsroman --- the script of an odyssey imbued with a phantasmagoric setting, full of dead-end leads, nasty people, lies, deception, betrayals and a murder or two. Carol Goodman takes readers on a journey as rich in questions as it is in answers. Her writing is dramatic and accessible. She has a facility for moving back and forth from the past to the present, then from fairytales to Iris's real life that serves the reader well. Fans waiting for her second novel will not be disappointed. Those who don't yet know Goodman's work will delight in finding a new voice with a resounding talent as a storyteller.
When the opening chapter of Carol Goodman's THE SEDUCTION OF WATER kicks off with a mother recounting to her daughter the legendary Irish tale of the Selkie --- a sort of a "woman in seal's clothing" type creature who abandons her human children and husband to return to a life in the sea --- you just know that inevitably the daughter listening to the story is going to lose her own mother at some point in the future. And lose her she does.
The daughter in question is Iris Greenfeder and her mother is quasi-famous fantasy novelist, K.R. LaFleur (a.k.a. Kay Greenfeder), who dies under mysterious circumstances before the third installment in her Tirra Glynn fantasy trilogy can be written. The Greenfeder family lives and works at The Equinox, an upscale Catskills hotel where Iris's father is manager and Kay is a maid who writes her novels in the off-season. When Iris is nine-years-old, Kay unexpectedly decides to depart a day early for a NYU writer's conference she is to attend but never checks into her hotel. That same night, the Dreamland Motel in Coney Island burns to the ground and weeks pass before Kay's body is identified among the motel's guests. The reason --- she was registered there as another man's wife.
Decades pass and Iris is now a struggling writer in Greenwich Village and instructor at New York's Grace College, where she teaches creative writing to recent immigrants and work-release program prisoners. Iris is ABD --- all but dissertation --- and finding that "all but" is becoming the story of her life --- "all but published, all but a teacher, all but married..." Still haunted by the circumstances of Kay's death and eager for a change of pace, Iris accepts a proposal from Kay's former literary agent, Hedda Wolfe, to return to The Equinox to search for the third Tirra Glynn novel that Hedda believes to be hidden somewhere in the hotel. In return for finding the novel, Hedda promises Iris a hefty advance for a K.R. LaFleur biography. Though skeptical of the novel's existence, Iris returns to the Catskills in hopes that her search will begin to unravel some of the mystery surrounding her mother's secret "other life" and of her death. When the answers she uncovers lead to more troubling questions, Iris will risk her life to get to the truth.
THE SEDUCTION OF WATER is a dazzling mix of intrigue and lore, romance and suspense complete with an eccentric cast of "suspects" and a beautifully flawed leading man. Carol Goodman's second novel is a more than worthy follow-up to her popular debut THE LAKE OF DEAD LANGUAGES and should earn her many more fans.
Reviewed by Melissa Morgan on January 23, 2011