Thursday, March 9, 2017

Review: Untangling the threads of a lost mother’s life

Review of: The Seduction of Water
Author: Carol Goodman
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Source: Dallas Library
book sale
Grade: B

Carol Goodman’s The Seduction of Water contains all the elements that would become characteristic of her adult fiction. There’s a 30-something woman academic, a beautiful building haunted by its history, a mysterious manuscript, and violent death. Oh, and a love triangle and a gripping climax, lapped in Goodman’s seductively lovely prose. And of course, there are bodies of water. Lots of water, whose seductive and dangerous powers the 2003 novel’s title refers to. I haven’t read her entire oeuvre, which now includes young adult fiction, but I suspect Goodman would never be able to write a story set in a desert.

The Seduction of Water opens with the telling of a fantasy tale by the narrator’s mother, a once-bestselling author killed in a fire in a tawdry hotel, where she was registered as the wife of a man other than her daughter’s father. (Goodman’s ability to shift seamlessly between the tragedies of the past to the harrowing present is one of her many gifts.)

The story that opens the book is the last one the narrator, Iris Greenfeder, then 10-years-old, ever heard from her mother. Supposedly on her way to a literary conference, the mother, Kay Greenfeder, nee Morrissey, took an unexplained detour. It led her from the elegant 19th century watering place in upstate New York where she, her daughter, and her hotel manager husband lived to the hot-sheets dive in a dangerous Coney Island neighborhood. It was a detour that would lead to her death, and to the betrayal of everything her daughter and husband believed about her.

Why did Kay desert the family she loved? Who was the man listed on the Coney Island hotel’s register, a man whose body was never found? And where is the missing manuscript Kay spent the last year of her life writing, the manuscript that might explain the strange turns of her life, and of her death?

Twenty years into the present, the questions still haunt her daughter Iris.

Her mother wasn’t able to finish her final manuscript, and Iris hasn’t been able to complete anything else in her own life. Not her PhD dissertation, not marriage to her decade-long boyfriend. Not even a career. Her literary works, at best, have only been published in obscure (and mostly defunct) magazine. Her three part-time teaching jobs barely cover the rent on her one-room apartment in New York City, eked out by a stipend sent by her aunt, who still works at the upstate hotel Iris’s late father once managed.

And even that stipend is in danger as Iris learns that the elegant old hostelry is up for sale.

It’s with some foreboding that Iris assigns her students the task of writing a story based on their favorite fairy tale. Little does she know the assignment will reopen an investigation into her mother’s life. And as she follows the clues from her mother’s books, to the hotel of her childhood, and through connections with a wealthy hotelier and art expert, her discoveries open doors others are willing to kill to keep closed.

I love Goodman’s writing, but as her heroine’s search continues, The Seduction of Water takes on an overstuffed feeling. Suspense fiction isn’t to be mistaken, but this one has too many coincidences, too many characters, many strange plot twists crammed into the final chapters to be entirely digestible.

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