Sunday, April 04, 2010

Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman

I have long been a fan of Carol Goodman’s gothic mysteries, and I have long felt the same way at the end of her books: slightly disappointed.

The beginnings are always terrific: a woman on her own in the world goes to some hermetically sealed place (a hotel or boarding school), encounters some interesting characters, and slowly understands there is an ancient death that has cast a pall over the place. And then the heroine gets sucked into the mystery, someone she loves is put in peril, but then she survives.

I was mesmerized by The Lake of Dead Languages, the first Goodman book I read.

I just finished Arcadia Falls, the story of a woman, Meg Rosenthal, whose husband has died and left her in debt. She sells their fancy house in Great Neck, N.Y., and accepts a job at a boarding school in the Hudson Valley.  She brings her daughter, Sally, who has been angry and rebellious since her father’s death, and enrolls her in the school, which is called Arcadia Falls.

The seeds of a great mystery are all there, and they carry the novel for a long time. The school is located at an old artists’ colony that was started in the 1920s by two women, who were also lovers, Vera Beech and Lily Eberhardt. Together, they wrote and illustrated a children’s fairy tale, The Changeling Girl, about a young girl who must choose between her family and self-expression. (That theme mirrors what female artists of the period went through: can one have a family and be an artist or does domestic life preclude an artistic life?) The art colony evolved into a school, which is still thriving.

But when a young student falls to her death, it brings back memories of another death: that of the founder Lily Eberhardt, who may have died on the evening she was leaving Vera Beecher for a man. Meg Rosenthal, who is writing her thesis on the two women, uncovers Lily’s long-lost diary, and sets out to determine why she died and if the two deaths are linked.

All of this is terrific stuff, as is Rosenthal’s relationship with her daughter and budding romance with the local sheriff. The book is atmospheric, creepy, and intriguing. But at the end of the book Goodman uses an old slight of hand. She pretends to solve the mystery of the death, only to offer another explanation in its closing pages. That's when the coincidences grow too pat and convenient. The closing pages of the book feel contrived.

Still, Arcadia Falls, like Goodman’s other books, provides considerable pleasure.


A interview with Carol Goodman about Arcadia Falls.

1 comment:

VanDee said...

Nice to hear someone say as much; I was starting to think it was just me!

So far her best (plotwise) has been THE NIGHT VILLA, where she was a little more ambitious and it really paid off; ARCADIA FALLS, however, reads like every plot device she's ever used thrown into a blender. Really tired.

And yes, the ending was extremely contrived (the name got stripped from one girl and given to another one... WHY?) but to be honest I stopped believing when a student fell off a bare ledge of rock into a crevasse... and her grieving family did not SUE THE SCHOOL for such a flagrant disregard for health and safety!

Hope she breaks out of her safety zone with the next one, because if she publishes another "identikit" novel I won't be reading it.