One of the great pleasures I have in life is reading; I’ve always loved to read, always been able to escape whatever ailed me at the time–loneliness, depression, heartbreak, self-loathing–by escaping into the pages of a book; imagining myself to be a part of the story, getting lost in the words and the sentences and paragraphs of an engaging author; finding sanctuary from a far too frequently cold and cruel world. I’ve always found my solace in books–whether it was Hercule Poirot using his little gray cells to outwit a killer or Perry Mason casting a spell in a courtroom or a Gothic heroine fearing she was married to someone who wanted to kill her in a palatial mansion or castle somewhere–books were my safe place. It’s why I’ve always treasured them, why I hoard them, why I am reluctant to part with them once I’ve experienced the world contained between its covers.
I’ve heard great things about Carol Goodman and her novels over the years; I had the great pleasure of meeting her in person at the HarperCollins party at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg when I was a little the worse for wine but she was gracious and friendly and kind to me. She had recently won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for The Widow’s House, and more recently a friend (whose taste is impeccable and I trust implicitly) told me that Goodman was a modern-day Daphne du Maurier.
And for me, there is no higher praise.
So last weekend, when another friend had sent me the ARC for Goodman’s latest, The Sea of Lost Girls, I decided it would be the first of hers that I would read. Last Saturday as I sat in my easy chair, shifting around the stack of books on the end table I picked it up, thinking first ugh another “girl” title and flipped it open to the first page, just to get a taste.
The next thing I knew I was one hundred pages in and reluctantly had to put it aside to do something else. I carried it with me all week, waiting for an opportunity to delve into it again, but such a moment never happened…until this morning, as I tore through the book with my morning coffee.
And may I just say, wow?
The phone wakes me as if it were sounding an alarm inside my chest. What now, it rings, what now what now what now.
I know it’s Rudy. The phone is set to ring for only two people–Harmon and Rudy (at least I made the short list, Harmon had once joked)–and Harmon is next to me in bed. Besides, what has Harmon ever brought me but comfort and safety? But Rudy…
The phone has stopped ringing by the time I grab it but there is a text on the screen.
I’m here, I text back. My thumb hovers over the keypad. If he were here maybe I could slip in baby, like I used to call him when he woke up from nightmares, but you can’t text that to your seventeen-year-old son. What’s up? I thumb instead. Casual. As if it isn’t–I check the number on the top of the screen–2:50 in the freaking morning.
I defy anyone to stop reading after those opening paragraphs.
The Sea of Lost Girls isn’t another one of those “girl” books that have become so prevalent since Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl became a viral sensation; the only commonality is the use of the word “girl” in the title, but Goodman’s tale is as dark and rich and layered and complex as Flynn’s. It’s also incredibly literate, but one supposes that is to be expected, given the setting is an elite boarding school on the Maine coast near Portland (the Maine coast has always held a fascination for me, thanks to Dark Shadows). The main character, a teacher married to another teacher, is a big fan of The Scarlet Letter; her troubled teenaged son is currently playing the lead in a school production of The Crucible. Both of those works have a lot of bearing and similarities to the plot of this incredible novel, but saying any more than that would be a spoiler.
The book’s set-up is that Tess’ troubled son has finally found a girlfriend–an intelligent student who is directing The Crucible–and on this night in question Tess goes to pick up her son at their “safe place”, which has to do with a rock causeway leading out to Maiden Island; legend holds that the stones are Indian maidens who drowned and were turned into rocks. Her son is soaking wet and his sweatshirt has blood on the sleeve; a nervous Tess takes him home, launders the shirt and gives her son her husband’s sweatshirt–exactly the same, drying on a radiator–to wear instead. That simple act has enormous ramifications, particularly when Rudy’s girlfriend Lila’s body is found near the rocks on the causeway.
Does Tess cover for her son? She does…but her husband, because he wore the sweatshirt jogging, now becomes a prime suspect. Husband or son?
If that was the lynchpin of the story it would be another adequate, enjoyable thriller; but there is so much more to the story of what happened to Lila–as well as the secrets Tess has kept hidden about her own past. The school used to be a Home for Wayward Girls, and the school’s own dark history, which Tess is also a part of, has an important part to play in this riveting story of a wife and mother torn between the husband and son she loves, both suspects in a murder–which maybe her own secrets have something to do with as well.
This exploration of motherhood rates up there, in my opinion, with Laura Lippman’s And When She Was Good and Hush Hush and James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce as a classic.
And, as always when I read something extraordinary, it inspired me and gave me ideas for my own work.
It also made me want to reread both The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter.
It is being released this month. Get it now. You won’t be sorry.