This morning I am going to be yet another person blogging about this extaordinary book. For a while this was something of an underground success, catching on by word of mouth and hand-selling by booksellers. Actually, Brunonia Barry first published The Lace Reader herself just in the Salem area where she lives. Now, having been published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, it has been lionized in the mainstream media.
I read this book in almost one sitting. The Lace Reader is extraordinarily original: Ms. Barry actually invented a method of fortune-telling by reading pillow lace. First heard of in this book, it is a method that has apparently been adopted already by modern-day witches in Salem, Massachusetts. The story just draws you in. The atmosphere of Salem where the book is set is unforgettable – I’m sure tourism to the area will increase after people have read this book.
The Lace Reader is the story of a youngish woman, Towner Whitney who returns to Salem where we assume she grew up. She spent at least part of the time living with her grandfather’s second wife, named Eva. Much of the details are hazy – we learn that Towner has had to reconstruct many of her memories after a spell in a mental hospital. Towner had left Salem for California after the death of her twin sister Lyndley. We don’t know why, but she says it was the only way she could feel safe. She has only returned because Eva has disappeared. She returns and lets herself into the empty, rambling, and crumbling former sea-captain’s house that belongs to Eva and to her family. The descriptions of the house are so evocative, I felt I was walking through the rooms with Towner. The house and the town and the sea around the rocky shore are as much part of the story as the characters and I loved it!
When Eva’s body is found in the water, for some reason that is not exactly clear in the beginning, Towner is convinced the death has something to do with Cal, a bogus evangeligal preacher and his cult members. We slowly learn more details of Cal’s connection with Towner’s family, including her aunt and her reclusive mother, May, who live on a rocky island in Salem harbor, which is inhabited by wild dogs and accessible only by small boat. There are great descriptions of children’s games and boating there in the summers. Towner is helped in finding out what happened to Eva by Rafferty, a policeman recently arrived in Salem looking for the simple life.
Nothing, however, is simple in this story! Getting to know Rafferty and trying to solve the mystery of Eva’s death provokes Towner into recalling more and more of her past. Among the many layers of the story we learn that the women in Towner’s family can all see into the future by reading patterns in pieces of lace. One of the beauties of the book is the lace-making lore that the reader learns. Towner also has the psychic gift but refuses to acknowledge it. Eventually the patterns in the lace will play an important part in Towner’s search for answers.
It is hard for Towner and the reader to sort reality from dreams, but clearly at some time in the past she suffered severe emotional trauma. Just what that trauma was, and just what the mystery is in her family, you will have to read the book to find out. There are lots of hints along the way. Have fun seeing if your conclusions are right!