The passage of time addles my brain and messes with my memories, as I have often complained about here. I don’t recall why I first picked up a Carol Goodman novel–someone must have recommended her books to me; all I do now is that when I did meet her in person, at the HarperCollins cocktail party at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, I had already read at least one of her novels and had quickly become a big fan. I fanboyed hard at that party, if I am recalling correctly, and I am not a bit embarrassed or sorry about it.
And every time I read another book she’s written, I fanboy all over again.
I have been told to make the Latin curriculum relevant to the lives of my students. I am finding, though, that my advanced girls at Heart Lake like Latin precisely because it has no relevance to their lives. They like nothing better than a new, difficult declension to memorize. They write the noun endings on their palms in blue ballpoint ink and chant the declensions, “Puella, puellae, puellae, puellam, puella…” like novices counting their rosaries.
When it comes time for a test they line up at the washroom to scrub down. I lean against the cool tile wall watching them as the washbasins fill with pale blue foam and the archaic words run down the drains. When they offer to show me the undersides of their wrists for traces of letters I am unsure if I should look. If I look, am I showing that I don’t trust them? If I don’t look, will they think I am naïve? When they put their upturned hands in mine–so light-boned and delicate—it is as if a fledgling has alighted in my lap. I am afraid to move.
In class I see only the tops of their hands–the black nail polish and silver skull rings. One girl even has a tattoo on the top of her right hand–and intricate blue pattern that she tells me is a Celtic knot. Now I look at the warm, pink flesh–their fingertips are tender and whorled from immersion in water, the scent of soap rises like incense. Three of the girls have scratched the inside of their wrists with pins or razors. The lines are fainter than the lifelines that crease their palms. I want to trace their scars with my fingertips and ask them why, but instead I squeeze their hands and tell them to go on into cass. “Bona fortuna,” I say. “Good luck on the test.”
It is difficult to read, or write about, novels set at private schools without instantly thinking of Donna Tartt and her The Secret History–although I am not now, nor have ever been, a big fan of that particular novel (I’ve always meant to go back to it and give it another read)–or Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction, which is a book I really loved and should write about someday. I certainly don’t mean to imply that Goodman and her work is derivative; it’s not, by any means, any more so than anyone ever writing about a gay private detective in New Orleans is being derivative of my work. It’s reductive thinking at best, and lazy at worst.
When I was being interviewed for the Spirit of Ink yesterday, I was asked about what I am reading and how I decide what to read next–which isn’t a good question for me to answer, because so many things play into what I decide to read when I am looking for my next read–but I did give a big shout out to Carol Goodman and her The Lake of Dead Languages, which I only finished reading today; I said that Goodman writes modern-day Gothics, similar to what Phyllis A. Whitney wrote in her heyday of popularity, but with a distinctly modern flare that firmly fixes the books as contemporary. That brooding sense of menace and danger that are a hallmark of Gothics? Goodman had that down to a science. It’s actually hard to believe that The Lake of Dead Languages is, in fact, her debut novel; there’s so much professionalism and experience and intelligence in the book that that it’s actually a little intimidating for someone who’s writing novel number forty-something; the confidence in her language and character and story-telling choices is that of someone at their peak, rather than at their beginning. The book is immersive, impossible to put down, and incredibly satisfying when you finally reach the ending.
The book tells the tale of Jane Hudson, a divorced mom who has returned to Heart Lake Academy to teach Latin. She’s from the small town of Corinth in upstate New York that is home to the school; she was a scholarship student herself at Heart Lake, and when she was a student there several tragedies occurred: one of her roommates committed suicide, and later, so did the other roommate and her brother, whom Jane was sort-of in love with in that way teenaged girls think they are in love. But things aren’t what they seem, nor as things what they once were: those long-ago tragedies turned Heart Lake from a first-rate girls’ school to a school of last resort for problem girls whose parents have money. But weird things, echoes from the past, are intruding into Jane’s new life; there are the three stones known as the Three Sisters in the lake–and an old legend about how three sisters from the Crevecouer family (whose estate is now the school) all committed suicide by drowning in the lake and were turned into the three stones. The legend isn’t true–only the youngest sister died, from Spanish flu in 1918–but the legend is more fun to believe for students than the truth, but the truth–especially the truth from Jane’s time back as a student–has a weird way of working its way back into the light. Another student attempts suicide, Jane begins to think someone knows more about the tragedies of the past than they are letting on, and are torturing her–with pages from her own long lost diary when she was a student.
Goodman also manages a time-line shift; about a third of the way through the book we go back in time to when Jane was a young girl, and her burgeoning friendships with her roommates…which ended in tragedy that Jane has always blamed herself for–but Jane also never knew the full truth about what happened when she was a girl.
(Sounds like the cover blurb on a Phyllis A. Whitney novel, doesn’t it?)
The Lake of Dead Languages is a great read, one that I was truly sorry to finish reading. Highly recommended.