Lori Roy has entered the arena of great American authors shared by Williams, Faulkner and Lee. She earned last year’s Edgar Award for Best First Novel (BENT ROAD). Her second roman noir reads like the evening news: extreme bullying, racial intolerance, prostitution, spousal abuse, abductions, rape…and worse. Roy brilliantly sets her stage for this novel in Michigan to demonstrate nationwide racial injustice, and not only in the South. Troubling for me, I grew up in the ’50s on North Carolina’s version of Alder Avenue.
Malina Herze, Grace Richardson, Julia Wagner, and other Alder Avenue housewives in 1958’s racially segregated suburban Detroit seem like robotic Stepford Wives: They live to serve their menfolk, smooth out foil to reuse to save their husbands’ hard-earned money, host bake sales for the church, and wear proper skirts to mid-calf and white gloves when driving…if their husbands allow. “This will not end well.”
"Roy brilliantly sets her stage for this novel in Michigan to demonstrate nationwide racial injustice, and not only in the South."
A slew of characters overwhelm at first, but the cogs mesh. “When Malina was younger, she was careless and would lie without thinking,” but her husband broke that flaw --- and her clavicle. Julia blames herself for her husband’s inadequacies, and her infant daughter died under suspect circumstances. For two years, she contemplates adoption but doesn’t consider her motherless nieces. Elizabeth Symanski has a child’s mind in a young adult’s body, and identifies her house only by the front iron gate. She vanishes the day after someone murders a “colored woman” near the factory where the men work --- and where prostitutes congregate on payday to entertain them. If Elizabeth is “found, things will return to normal.”
Julia is the last to see Elizabeth, standing at her iron gate and assumes she goes in, but Julia is busy with her visiting twin nieces, Izzy and Arie, and their missing cat, Patches. The twins must stay inside while the menfolk search for Elizabeth and Julia comforts Elizabeth’s widowed father. The adults’ tense whispering intrigues the young personality-polarity twins; predictably, they initiate their own search for Elizabeth and Patches. Out after dark and separated, one sees things not hidden by smiling faces and long-sleeve blouses concealing bruises caused by abusive husbands not dissimilar to Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Metaphorically rich, each dark secret is symbolic of society’s woes. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Neighbors obsessed with the search for Elizabeth can’t see the world around them transforming, and peg social seismic shifts in their utopian lives to her disappearance. “Folks can’t be trusted anymore, some of them say. Not like it used to be. Will Alder Avenue ever be the same, or has it changed --- have their lives changed --- in a lasting way?” Elizabeth is the tipping point. Nothing will return to normal until she comes home.
Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy on June 14, 2013