The narrator (all too appropriately) writes fluff pieces for a newspaper in a hardscrabble town, but comes from old money in Gatsby-land, except they’d sneer at Gatsby for being trop nouveau. She’s funny and vulnerable but often sounds like a chick-lit character, which gets old. She’s married to a guy from the other side of the tracks (who’s working on a way to make railroad tracks better, oddly enough) but can’t seem to come down on one side or another – she rolls her eyes at her eccentric Brideshead Revisited Goes to America relatives but is seduced by the trappings of old money. If she had a Porsche she would never be unhappy again. And there’s a lot of romantic angst when the husband is away. Oh, and two dead girls, photographs, fairground portraits, and the possibility that her sexy, dissolute cousin is the killer, unless its the squirrelly newspaper photographer, unless it’s the throughly ratlike cop who was first on the scene and now beats up prostitute girlfriends and sells coke.
What I didn’t like: some of the eccentric characters are more eccentric than real. They reminded me of Charlotte McLeod richfolk, which made the story have small bitchslap fights from time to time. (This is real! No, it’s not! Is! Isn’t!) The chick-lit flavor. The dialogue that seems more now than 1988 (though maybe Long Islanders in 1988 really did talk like the Midwestern college students I work with in 2007, what do I know?) The amateur sleuthiness of it. The narrator cares about the dead girls, sort of, but the focus wobbles constantly which undermines her supposed motivation to find out what happened to those girls. The pop psychology at the end that I can’t describe without a spoiler, but it’s faux forensic psych that is far too common in crime fiction and fortunately crap that psychologists have gotten over.
What I liked, no loved, and why I want to read more: the writing is amazing. It’s really, really brilliant in places. And it’s never bad. It’s just that it happens to be in a book that has features I don’t usually like in crime fiction. Could it be I am going to become a tad more broadminded? Don’t hold your breath.
But reader, choose for yourself. Here’s a passage near the end that encapsulates everything I liked and didn’t like about the book (and why, in the end, it gets a thumbs up from me). She’s standing over a polluted lake, ruined by the factories of her old-money ancestors.
“If you looked hard enough at this water, you could almost see the calling cards and straw boater hats and long three-button kid gloves and chilled finger bowls with paper-thin slices of lemon – the delicate props of empire – floating on the waves, arcing through the toxin-rainbowed slop.”
In one passage she pulls together the ambivalence of the narrator who loves that which had grace and beauty in her wealthy ancestor’s past and acknowledging what it has led to. In gobsmackingly fine prose.
I’m too bolshie to not be irritated by this character and her indecision about whether to care about people or just go for the gorgeous, lovely stuff, but the writing is too good to pass up.
There’s an interview with Read over at Poe’s Deadly Daughters that is worth a read.