Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Seduction of Water (Reviewed August 2008)

The Seduction of Water, Carol Goodman (2003)[****][or maybe ***1/2][but probably ****]. At some point during our three+ weeks on the road, I just needed to read something Good But Not Serious. This was in the bag of books Julie had packed, and the blurb on the back promised a suspenseful page-turner from beginning to end. That it was not, and I almost took Suzann's sound advice to her second graders and ditched it. But it kept being just good enough to read a few more pages, and about a quarter of the way through when the mystery finally kicked in, it turned out to be just what I wanted to read on the beach. The narrator Iris is 36 years old, lives in a rent-controlled studio in NYC, teaches basic composition as an adjunct to prisoners, immigrants and art students. She sees her lover of ten years twice a week, never more, in order that they can both devote themselves to their art. Iris aspires to be a writer, but is mostly distracted by teaching and other stresses. When Iris assigns her students to retell a fairy tale from their childhoods, she is inspired to begin a memoir about her mother, the author of two popular fantasy novels in a trilogy that was never completed, in which her mother spins a a fantasy world out of the Celtic fairy tales of Iris's childhood. Iris is also, quite naturally, haunted by her mother's mysterious death 26 years before in a Conney Island hotel fire while she was checked in as another man's wife. When Iris has an opportunity to return for the summer to the Hotel Equinox in the Catskills, where her parents were the managers and where she grew up, she hopes to unravel some of the mysteries of her mother's life and death. The summer reveals more mysteries than Iris ever suspected, as the fairy world of her mother's novels begins to reveal itself less fantasy than first meets the eye. There are lots of plot twists and turns, appealing characters (including a sexy Irish ex-con, a humorless feminist literary editor, an earnest feminist art student, an avuncular gardener/holocaust survivor, among others) and good stories within the story, ranging from Celtic and Japanese fairy tales to art history intrigue to Catholic legend. There are also quite a number of whopping and unconvincing coincidences one must be willing to look past, which sometimes really spoil a mystery for me, but which for some reason I was willing to overlook. The role myth and fairy tale play in one's memory of and relationship with a long-dead loved one also resonated for me.

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