Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Arcadia Falls . . . and Fails

Arcadia Falls

by Carol Goodman

Published by Ballantine Books

2 Out of 5 Stars

In the beginning, I really wanted to love this book. I really, really did. Toward the middle of the book, I was just hoping to like it. By the end, I was ready to bid it a not-so-fond farewell and move onto something else. The novel sounds as though it's tailor made for me: there's the strained mother/daughter relationship, the pastoral setting at a private school for the arts, dark and eerie fairytales, a judicious dollop of death, and a mystery from the past that is being explored in the present. It's an ambitious mix and, in the end, the novel is weakened by its interwoven plot lines as it desperately tries to tie everything up into a neat little bundle.

Meg Rosenthal is trying to build a new life in the wake of her husband's unexpected death. Even more unexpected is that he mismanaged their finances and, despite the lavish lifestyle to which they were accustomed, he left them with virtually nothing. In the middle of her PhD in literature, Meg sells everything they own and moves her bitter and distant daughter, Sally, to Arcadia Falls, the site of a private school for the arts where she has been offered a teaching position. The job is ideal for Meg as she is studying the feminist fairytales written and illustrated by the school's founders, Vera Beecher and Lily Eberhardt. Sixty or so years ago, Lily died under peculiar circumstances while going to meet her lover, Virgil Nash, and her body wasn't recovered for several months. While it appeared as though she fell off a cliff during a blizzard, rumors and gossip have circulated in the art community and in the small town of Arcadia Falls for years as to whether Lily's death was just an accident. When a young student, Isabel Cheney, falls to her death (in the exact same way Lily did so many years earlier) during the pagan celebration that traditionally opens the new school year at Arcadia, the questions about Lily's death resurface and Meg finds the key to unraveling the truth about what really happened at Arcadia.

The book is beautifully written, although Goodman does have a tendency to throw in too much minutiae that slows down the pace of the story. Other problems that I had with the novel include:

A) Weak, one dimensional characters. The school dean, Ivy St. Clare, walks around the school with apparently little to do other than harass Meg (which begs the question of why she would hire her to begin with). She's so obviously the villain that I'm surprised she didn't walk around rubbing her hands together and cackling with all her maniacal might. Sally is the stereotypical sullen teenager who hates her mother, hates her new school, hates the new town, hates their new house, and, well, just hates everything. Then there's the town sheriff, Callum Reade, our knight in shining armor who shows up occasionally so Meg can get irritated at him without knowing why and he can get irritated with her without knowing why and then they can have sex later without knowing why. I didn't give a rat's ass about any of them.

B) Meg is also an unlikable character. She seems passive, just allowing things to happen to her. At the school, she shrinks away from or avoids any situation in which she might have to act like an adult authority figure. She spends her days reading Lily's journal and never seems to have any actual teaching responsibilities. She occasionally comes up with a lesson plan while crossing the school campus, but that's about it.

C) Meg finds Lily's hidden diary and, while reading it, begins to piece together the events that led to Lily's tragic death. However, she takes for-eh-ver to read it (I would have had that puppy read in one night) and I found the story in the diary to be far superior to the one in present day. Lily and Vera were lovers, but Lily also fell under the spell of Virgil Nash, the painter for whom she became a muse. This love triangle and these characters are far more intriguing, but sadly take backseat to Meg and Sally.

D) The book seems to want to be in the gothic or magical realism genre, but just can't quite bring itself to commit. This just pissed me off because it was billed as both.

E) So many things are just half-assed: Isabel's death is forgotten as soon as it happens, the folk legend of the white woman of the falls is a bizarre little footnote, a promising character named Toby Potter is made unforgettable and then readily forgotten, etc.

F) Women in this book have a nasty habit of running to the cliff when in danger. It's akin to the slasher film phenomenon of the beautiful girl running upstairs instead of out the front door. Everyone knows disaster happens at the cliff, but they take off like lemmings for it when things go wrong.

G) I had the end figured out halfway through the book. I won't spoil it for you, but I saw that one coming from about twenty miles away and it requires some serious suspension of disbelief. At one point the main character says, "I have to admit it all sounds a little far-fetched." And to that I say, spot on, Meg, spot on.

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