Victoria Lustbader expertly looks at grief, love, loneliness, identity issues and passionate sex, and how these might intertwine, in STONE CREEK, an escapist page-turner that will be in more than a few beach bags this summer.
Lustbader comes to her second novel with experience. As a former fiction editor and the wife of novelist Eric Van Lustbader, she intimately knows the mechanics of writing a novel. This book reads smoothly from cover to cover. The story is set in the well-rendered fictional small town of Stone Creek, 70 miles northwest of New York City, a place she does a solid job sketching out for the reader.
But it’s the characters, not the place, that are the heart and soul of this novel. Danny Malloy is the attractive young widower and construction worker who married out of his class and whose grieving mother-in-law, Eve Jamison, won’t let him forget it. As the story opens, it’s been almost a year since his wife Tara died, and Danny finds it is all he can do to take care of his five-year-old son Caleb and make it through another day. Lustbader employs the oft-used device of a journal left behind by the deceased wife Tara as a method of filling in some historical blanks for the readers about Danny and Tara, and their passionate love for each other. It’s a bit of a clichéd device, but it works.
Danny’s life is about to intersect with Lily Spencer, a beautiful 46-year-old woman with everything money can buy. But she’s suffering from boredom and feels distant from her husband Paul, a 54-year-old workaholic corporate lawyer. They’ve been married nine years and are childless, a condition that is unpacked more thoroughly as the novel unfolds. Paul is a likable man prone to thoughtful gestures who has overcome his past as an unloved adopted son and strives to achieve. Lustbader makes him more than the easy cookie-cutter character, however, and it’s hard for readers to dislike or dismiss him. I particularly liked this description of Paul: “He sets his sights on something or someone and most of the time he gets what he’s after. And if he doesn’t get what he’s after, he stops wanting it. It’s a trick he taught himself….”
Eve, the mother-in-law you’d love to hate, is in fact impossible to hate because of the multifaceted way Lustbader portrays her character. Eve is anxious, angry, grieving, and feels a tremendous sense of guilt over an action in her past that later will shed light on her hatred of Danny. Her influence on Caleb threatens the peace that Danny and his son carved out after Caleb’s mother’s death.
Although it takes a bit of getting used to, the present tense narration lends a sense of urgency to the story. Each character’s motivations are gradually unveiled by Lustbader, as the tale moves to its unexpected conclusion. The complicated relationships between different people keep the tension high as the novel progresses.
For Lily, her life, however wonderful it looks on the outside, is just not enough. She needs to find herself, and her relationship with Danny holds the key to unlocking Lily’s own identity and helping her get a grip on her marriage. Lest readers be angry with Danny, Lustbader is clear that his relationship with Lily is just what he needs to heal from his grief. Lest readers be angry at Lily for cheating on Paul, Lustbader gives Paul flaws. I found what happens with Paul to be a plot device employed to make him less of a sympathetic character.
The themes of grief resolution, midlife angst and identity should generate plenty of discussion about STONE CREEK and will likely keep a few book groups chatting about it late into the night.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby. Contact Cindy at firstname.lastname@example.org on May 27, 2008