The Lace Reader
by Brunonia Barry

Morrow, 2008. ISBN 978-0-06-162476-6.
Reviewed by Laura Strathman Hulka
Posted on 09/15/2008

Fiction: Mystery; Fiction: Paranormal/Science Fiction/Fantasy

This first novel by Brunonia Barry proved to this reviewer that you should never start reading a book with expectations. This book is so unusual and so beautifully written that it will blow you away. So check all your preconceptions at the door, and open the covers of this book with an open mind and open heart.

The women in this story—and it is a story of women—are eccentric, exotic, courageous, damaged, and yet vibrantly living. The layered nuances of the book pull the reader deep into their world, and into the world of Salem MA. The language weaves a witch-like spell that propels us into the unusual world of the Whitney family.

The pieces of history and character are woven together with almost invisible threads, as is the lace that the author uses as inspiration. Each chapter heading is taken from an imaginary book called "The Lace Reader's Guide," and gives us not only history and glimpses of the past world of women's handiwork, but helps us understand the characters.

Towner Whitney is a woman of many parts. Born into the larger-than-life Whitney clan, she has struggled over the years with herself, her mother, May, and her step-grandmother Eva, as well as her twin sister. She escaped to California, and a new life. There she stays, doing her best to forget the past. Only the unexpected disappearance of Eva forces her homeward, where she must once again face the women of her family, and the men that have affected them. The town itself has grown and changed since the time of the witch burnings. Salem prides itself on its even temperament and tolerance these days.

Being forced by circumstances to return to the scenes of her childhood, and young adulthood, is difficult for Towner. Together with struggling with the death of her twin sister, decades ago, and the trauma of returning home to her beloved Eva's status as "missing," she has to figure out how to come to terms with her past and its impact on her future.

Towner shares the psychic abilities of the other women in her family, and as she works with local detective Rafferty to discover what has happened to Eva, she is haunted by phantoms. The book deals with some painful truths; incest, sexual abuse, mental illness, cultism, and strong interpersonal family connections. Throughout it all, the lace reading (and making) provides an underpinning of history and tools for Towner to use in self-discovery. The ending is so unexpected that you will want to keep this book on your shelf for rereading. Towner's breakthroughs become our own, and as she learns to appreciate her strengths and understand her weaknesses, we too are enriched.

Brunonia Barry was born and raised in Massachusetts. She studied literature and creative writing at Green Mountain College in Vermont and at the University of New Hampshire. She has created Brain Teaser puzzles for Smart Games and lives in Salem, Massachusetts, with her husband and their golden retriever, Byzantium. Visit her blog and the book website.

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