I confess that I have lived within a half-hour drive of Salem, Massachusetts, for seven years and have never stopped to visit the place. Friends' tales of hokey haunted houses, tourist trap souvenir shops and costumed "witches" were enough for me to steer clear of town. But this summer I may finally have found a reason to visit Salem: local author Brunonia Barry's captivating portrait of this historic harbor city.
As anyone who has studied early American history knows, of course, Salem's history is a notorious one. It's no coincidence that Barry sets her modern-day tale, with its convergence of mystical practices and troubled family history, in this town, whose history is similarly troubled and mystical.
Sophya "Towner" Whitney has come back home after spending the last 15 years in Southern California. Still healing from major surgery, she returns to Salem when her great-aunt Eva mysteriously disappears. Like Eva --- and virtually all the Whitney women --- Towner has the ability to "read" other people, to see their innermost thoughts. But this "gift" has also threatened to ruin Towner's life on more than one occasion, as her hallucinations and visions landed her in a psychiatric hospital, estranged her from her family and ruined her romantic relationships.
As soon as Towner returns to Salem, she feels Eva's presence strongly, so vividly that she's convinced Eva must be upstairs in the sprawling old Victorian mansion. But when the police discover Eva's body --- and when Eva's will reveals that she has left everything to Eva --- Towner begins to wonder whether Eva, or Eva's spirit, has brought her back to Salem for a reason.
Towner's reintroduction to her hometown is anything but easy. Her mother, May, who lives on (fictional) Yellow Dog Island where she shelters abused women and teaches them to make Ipswich lace, has grown increasingly eccentric and reclusive. Her attempts at dating a local cop who is investigating the disappearance of a pregnant teenager are awkward at best. And her interactions with her abusive uncle Cal, who has declared himself the leader of the so-called Calvinists, a vehemently anti-witch religious sect, are just as violent and threatening as they were in her youth. Worst of all, being in Salem again casts Towner's mind back to her twin sister Lyndley, whose death Towner never recovered from.
Brunonia Barry's debut novel is startlingly ambitious. Freely switching perspectives, shifting forward and back in time, and incorporating documents and evidence from Towner's past, the narrative echoes the complexities of Towner's own mind --- and of the intricate strands of the lace that has been at the center of so many generations of Whitney women. Part mystery and part romance, THE LACE READER is most of all an evocative portrait of a place, and of a family, that readers will enjoy spending time with. I suspect that other readers, like myself, will be so enchanted by Barry's book that they, too, will visit Salem for something richer than those tacky souvenir shops and haunted houses.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 7, 2011
The Lace Reader