Arcadia Falls / Carol Goodman
New York: Ballantine, c2010.
This book's thematic refrain could be et in Arcadia ego vixi
This is the latest release by Carol Goodman, an author I love. I've read every one of her books thus far - she writes academic-based romantic suspense novels, which to me seem similar in feel to Mary Stewart or Barbara Michaels (both of whom I enjoy).
Arcadia Falls is in the same vein as Goodman's earlier novels: a middle aged woman, Meg Rosenthal, with a teen daughter named Sally, finds a new job teaching at a private school. The Arcadia School is up in the backwoods of New York State, very different from the privileged life they led before Meg's husband died. Meg has been recently widowed and left with little money, so is rather desperate for work. In addition to this, she hasn't taught in years - so when she finds this school willing to hire her, she takes the job. She is going to be teaching folklore in Arcadia, a school which began as an artists collective founded mostly by women for women.
The story is based around the original fairy tales of Vera Beecher and Lily Eberhardt, founders of the school, especially one entitled The Changeling Girl. This tale gives us clues as to the truth of Vera and Lily's relationship, and to Lily's eventual death. The atmosphere is, as always, somehow threatening amidst an apparently idyllic setting. The interplay between teachers, Dean and students is well drawn and mostly believable - but the librarian at the school only shows up in the library, not in any other place like the faculty meetings, the school's festivals, or in any educational context. She is also a rule-bound harpy hopelessly out of touch with the modern world. For obvious reasons, I wasn't too fond of her portrayal. The library itself seems from a past age, all archives and dust motes and silence - no computers, no students or much of anything else. Considering that the rest of the story has modern markers thrown in willy nilly, this seems a bit unlikely.
This was actually one of the major difficulties I had with this particular book. I am not sure why, but throughout the text our main character Meg refers to brand names, to specific stores, and so on: in one particularly jarring example (for me) she tries to remember if she's packed any dresses suitable for the faculty tea. She recalls that she had recently bought a "floral dress from Anthropologie" for her daughter and since she'd lost so much weight in her year of widowhood she could now wear that. Why say "from Anthropologie"? It took me out of the story and made me think of online shopping. Does everyone know what Anthropologie is? Couldn't the dress simply be described as a floaty floral shift? Anyhow, this kind of thing appeared a few times, and it made me think of Meg as one of those moms/teachers who is desperately trying to sound 'with it', more than anything else.
The other element I was disappointed by was the predictability of the plot. Meg just came across things that others had been hunting for for years, and seemed dense at times. Things were telegraphed early on, and the red herrings seemed half hearted. The ending was unnecessarily convoluted as well, with all the ends apparently being gathered up, then the author changing her mind and exposing that solution as untrue in favour of another one. Unfortunately, when the primary suspect is unmasked just past halfway in any book, you know that it has to be someone else after all -- not many books are half denouement. And the romantic interest for our main character was so obvious and mechanical; I didn't feel any tension or much interest in it.
But! I don't mean to sound utterly negative about the book. I suppose I simply had very high expectations as I have loved so many of Goodman's other books. I enjoyed the way she drew the history and locale of the Arcadia School. I also enjoyed the fairy tale elements quite a lot. She has a way with those themes that is really enchanting. In some ways this reminded me of the feel of Byatt's The Children's Book, mostly because of the fairy tales and art colony roots of the school, all in the early part of the century although of course this book was much less complex. It felt as if Goodman added in the modern storyline as a necessity but the historical storyline would have been enough on its own, and it was the strongest part of the book. If you also enjoy the use of fairy tales in this kind of story, try her earlier novel The Seduction of Water. That one I absolutely loved.