Well, perhaps I'm not a good judge of how enthralling a story is because I will read anything, including the phone book--a very interesting sociological document, actually, if there are no cereal boxes around. Certainly, if I compare Alice Hoffman with, say, the great Donald E. Westlake or the sublime Ruth Rendell, she comes up way short. Neither of those immensely popular crime novelists would have let Jorie and Kat and Corrie drift through the story like they've been hit on the head and can't find the aspirin. Actually, that's not fair to Kat. She's the only active character in the whole book, the only one who makes things happen--not just turning Ethan in, but rescuing her older sister from throwing herself away on him, AND getting herself and her whole family out of its frozen grief over her father's suicide the year before. And she's only 12! My daughter is almost 14, and she's a clever girl, but I can't imagine her ordering a tombstone, let alone having a preference for one that is "gray slate lined with mica." What does "lined with mica" even mean? Do tombstones have linings? I thought that was just the coffin.
However, the things we don't admire in Alice Hoffman are, I suspect, the very qualities her fans adore. For my taste, she is too tender toward her characters--she can't bear to have them really despair, really hit bottom, really be damaged, not even the heartless beauty Rosarie. For all her lyrical evocations of the dead, of sorrow, and teary tea, this is basically a novel of hope: "[E]ventually," as Kat's grandmother says, "you pick yourself up." Thus, Charlotte gets breast cancer, but also a new boyfriend, the lawyer Barney who has worshipped her since high school. Barney's wife loses Barney, but she doesn't seem to care. Collie loses a father, but he gets a new life in Michigan, and even a puppy! And so on. A real-life Jorie would probably go into psychotherapy for the rest of her life (How could I not see?! How can I trust again?!), but Hoffman's Jorie will no doubt move on and find some nice ice fisherman living in a beautiful old farmhouse down by the lake. She's a good person, after all,--and besides, like most of the female characters in the book, she's very beautiful. The only person who is permanently scarred is the dead girl's brother, who's become a sort of recluse. But perhaps the trial of Ethan will bring him, as they say, "closure."
Hoffman spreads a kind of maternal cherishing over the whole world of the book--the town of Monroe with all its quaint, small-town folkways and numerous varieties of apple tree; Holden, Md., which has its own charms; the minor characters, most of whom are also decent and upstanding and pleasant people. Into this nice world comes a danger--a killer, a man who is not actually nice, although for years and years he seemed to be the nicest one of all. But--whew!--the danger is soon put away and nobody, not even his wife, wants to think much about it, except how strange it is that someone could seem to be one thing and really be something else. Go figure!
With really good popular fiction, you often feel you are being shown the secret underside of life--for Westlake, everyone's a rogue; for Rendell, everyone's lonely and weird. For Hoffman, the world is pretty much a page out of This Old House. And if the guy who renovates the old house turns out to be a killer--well, that's just him.
I can't believe we finally agreed about something, Erik!