You've got to love a novel whose protagonist is an emotionally adrift art librarian turned kidnapper and detective. Stir together a literary mystery with a compelling setting, a liberal dash of humor, and a touching relationship and you get Jill McCroskey Coupe's debut novel, True Stories at the Smoky View.
It's March of 1993, and Vrai (short for Vraiment, French for "really") Lynde is a forty-something mother with grown sons, who is separated from her husband and carrying on a long-distance affair with a married man. As the novel opens, she has traveled to her hometown of Knoxville, Tenn., for the funeral of her childhood friend, Skip, with whom she worked at the fictional Stoneham-Knox University library in Baltimore.
Complications await Vrai in Knoxville. Her married lover, Lloyd, who was a friend of Skip's, too, is also on hand for the funeral, along with his wife, who looks much slimmer and sexier than Lloyd has let on to Vrai, and his 10-year-old nephew and ward, Jonathan.
As Vrai hightails it out of town, trying to beat a snowstorm that's pummeling the mountains, she spies young Jonathan sitting on a curb, seemingly abandoned by his uncle and aunt. She can't leave him stranded—his mother, who was her best friend growing up, was brutally murdered with her husband, leaving Jonathan orphaned, and Vrai is haunted by the fact she did nothing to help. So she takes the precocious boy with her, setting off the "kidnapping" plot. They make it as far as the Smoky View Motel before they have to hole up for the duration of the blizzard. The mountain setting abounds with colorful secondary characters, and the vivid snowstorm will chill you to the bone.
While they're sequestered at the motel, Jonathan hunts for computer games to play on Skip's PC and happens on the "true stories" of the title—lightly disguised tales Skip wrote about apparent wrong-doings at a library that sounds a lot like the one where he and Vrai work. The stories pique Jonathan's interest—he's a precocious boy fond of quoting Inspector Clousseau from the "Pink Panther" movies, and he worries that Skip and another librarian met with foul play. When Vrai and Jonathan finally are on their way again to Baltimore, the boy convinces her to play detective and try to track down the truth about Skip's demise.
If you haven't followed all the twists and turns of this review, it's because there is a lot going on in the novel, with subplots and characters galore. I haven't even mentioned Vrai's husband—will she get back together with him?—or the disabled son of the other deceased librarian. And then there's the creepy library director who brews a mean cup of tea, but what role did he actually play in the two deaths?
Although the plot feels busy at times, Coupe does manage to tie up the strands, making True Stories an enjoyable read. Vrai and Jonathan, who over the course of the "kidnapping" develop a sweet and loving relationship, are both fully fleshed-out, engaging characters whom you'll be happy to follow to Baltimore...or wherever they end up. And thanks to an epilogue that flash-forwards in time, readers do indeed get to see where they land.
Jill McCroskey Coupe is a former librarian at Johns Hopkins University. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Warren Wilson College in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At home in Baltimore, she is at work on her next novel, a collection of linked stories.
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